Lie flat, do nothing; work-resistance on the far side of bliss. Bumpy meet-ups. You and Big History. War and peace.
FOR A SUSTAINED PERIOD of time his work was intense and stressful. And then it was downtime for a mid-winter vacation. Away from the office for weeks, he didn’t think about not once the bullshit job and almost achieved idler’s bliss. Mostly confined to his hutch, due to cold weather, Covid, and a snag in the relationship,* he collapsed by increments into a deep luxuriant feather bed of day after day of nothing much to do. Happily he uncoiled; but did not unravel. (Not like that time in the Sea of Marmara years ago.)
‘Only by lying down can humans become the measure of all things,’ suggests an anonymous poster on Tieba, the Chinese online discussion forum. Subsequently deleted, the post from early 2021 embraces the emerging ‘lay flat’ trend (or ‘tang ping’) – where Chinese millennials, exhausted by a long-hours work culture, champion unwinding as a spiritual practice: ‘Lying flat is my wise movement.’
His mid-winter unwinding doesn’t happen in hours but over days – until one afternoon upstairs, laid flat out on a bean bag and flicking through a selection of books, about as lax as a plump angel basking on a comfy cloud, he felt the sweetest moment approaching, the time of no urgency at all, of not a single thing demanding his attention.
Still-point was closing in. He switched from the books to staring out the big window, his mind an empty vault. Not being much of a sky gazer, with eyes that cover but seldom probe, his descriptive apparatus is basic. What he saw above the roofs was white and glossy. A wide arena of continuous white, backlit by a golden tint suggesting a low winter sun lurking off scene.
An urge to hold onto the gleaming stratosphere has him reaching for his phone. Breughel and Constable captured exalted winter skies. Although his eyes perceive the subtle brilliance overhead, his snap isn’t up to the task. Shifting on the bean bag, getting closer to the window, nearer to the heavens, he tries a second exposure. And once again the picture comes out ordinary, the camera on his phone a failure.
He doesn’t allow the defeat to ruffle his calm. Because time has an in-built throwness, however, always casting the subject into the future, within a few short seconds his emotional equilibrium passes, as a mild anxiety springs at the thought of what’s in the fridge for dinner – anything? He has no idea, his mind’s a blank. It’s a known issue with still-point.
Once Upon a Time in Turkey
The last time he got this serene was years ago in the Sea of Marmara. On an early autumn holiday in Istanbul, the city was hot, hectic and intense; and after three days feeling frazzled, they downshifted dramatically, relocating to a tiny, placid island down the coast.
Stepping off the ferry was like slipping through time. An hour across the water had transported them from a full-on megalopolis into a snoozy faded nineteenth century resort winding down for the year. They had come to the smaller of the Princes Islands, where motorised vehicles were not allowed and the best way to get about the place, apart from use your legs, was by horse and cart. There was electricity and Turkish TV. But the architecture was largely domestic Ottoman, with rows and rows of tall thin buildings made out of a dark wood, as if modernism never happened. All of the taxis were horse drawn. They climbed up into a buggy piloted by a man in harem pants, who whistled gently for the horse to giddy-up for a five minute canter to their hotel. The sound of the horse clip-clopping over the cobbles was the loudest it got as they headed for the last building at the far end of the bay.
In Istanbul there were crowds and traffic and pollution, streets jammed with heaving cafes and shops. Huge historic mosques to go see, but little room to breathe. On their tiny halcyon isle, there was sea air and nothing to do but read your book and pour another glass of wine. Three straight days of tranquility got him so relaxed that he had a brand new experience: almost immediately after emotional equilibrium arrived, his mood altered, as he started to feel sad. (No pleasing some.) He somehow by-passed blissful becoming beset with morbid thoughts. Man is an unhappy ape. For several minutes it felt to him as if the world and the two of them had become fatally disconnected.
I could die tonight. We could die here tonight.
She looks into her glass. What kind of wine is this?
A suicide pact. Would anyone notice?
She stares at him with some concern, observing in reassuring tones that end-of-summer holidays can get melancholy.
Galvanised into a state of renewed awareness, he nods, says maybe it’s time to get off the island. The following morning after breakfast they took the ferry back to Istanbul.
In 1930, the Bloomsbury economist John Maynard Keynes predicted a future world of no more economic scarcity. That by 2030, developments in technology and productivity meant people wouldn’t need to work any more than fifteen hours a week. The future would be an age of ‘leisure and abundance’ wrote a delighted Keynes.
Field studies indicate that ancient hunter-gatherer communities garnered survival rations with comparatively small amounts of effort. The Ju/’hoansi, who lived in the Kalahari Desert until the middle of the last century, devoted roughly a dozen hours each week to getting in fuel and comestibles, leaving acres of free time for tribes to relax and sit by the fire telling stories.
Despite Keynes’ optimism, in our current moment many folk work long, long, longer hours. Longer than their forebears in drudgery clocked up back in the nineteen seventies. This is partly due to desire and shops. (He loves the shops too.) Many of us work not simply to stay afloat but to afford the proliferating commodities we fancy. Our economies are geared towards growth driven by a broad consumer class hankering after more stuff. Trips to Ikea, 48 hours in Vienna. We need new egg cups. Lively ceramic egg cups.
Give Me a Reason
Ideally your job makes a difference. You may invent a labour-saving device, inspire change that’s socially beneficial, or do something massive, such as help develop a life-saving health cure and mitigate global suffering. Or, if none of the above, at least your job is funky. You are the disruptor, skateboarding through the corridors of your cool workspace, and you adore it. Down the years here and there, he’s heard colleagues chirrup at how much they love their work. Mainly managers in the decision-making class. But loving a job doesn’t guarantee joy, as a reader explores in a letter to The Guardian’s life coach: ‘I have finally got my “dream” job – it’s perfect for me… However, I have become irrationally angry at the amount of time work takes up’. Oh yes, the spinning beach ball of doom. ‘I cannot fathom that this is what my life will be for maybe the next 40 years,’ she continues. ‘While I wait for automation to take away the need for humans to work at all, any advice?’
Don’t wish too hard for automation, or the robots, would be his advice. We saw how well that went through seventy six episodes of Battlestar Galactica (2003-2009) during lockdown. For now, his gut answer is try not to love the job loads. To avoid burnout, best dial down from ‘I love my work’ to ‘I tolerate it’, because, as the labour journalist Sarah Jaffe observes, ‘work won’t love you back’.**
His job is not the worst – not by a distance. His daily output is purposeful for the company but for him it lacks meaning. Effort that feels empty is bad for the soul and leaves the subject at a loss – two unseeing eyeballs glued to an array of work screens, wondering, is this my place in history?
And Then We Were Swept Away
We all have a place in history, surely? Make mine on the right side.
Previously he used to go on a lot of dates. (Obviously this was before, when he was single.) One evening he met a French woman for a drink in the basement bar of a cinema on Victoria Street. The bar had red velvet seats and was hushed. They spoke of lots of things but his date had something pressing on her mind that came tumbling out. She told him she’d been based in London since the early nineteen nineties, working firstly in TV, before retraining as a school teacher. All this time paying taxes, marrying an Englishman, buying a house, divorcing, raising a son singlehanded, and becoming, she believed, not only dug in, but culturally British.
And then along came 2016, and the vote for Brexit meant her residential status was being investigated by the Home Office, who kept requesting assorted documents. Thick wodges of wage slips. The address of every place she’s lived in the UK. Exact departure and return dates for each occasion she left the country since first moving to London. Holidays, visits with relatives back in France, that time she went to India with a film crew. All the ins and outs, including trips she couldn’t quite remember, and trips she had totally forgotten.
Every night, she said, I go to bed with a stress headache.
You’re caught up in history.
Exactly! I was living my little life and then the big, bad world came along.
And you got swept away.
Not yet, she says. Still hanging on!
He never thought history would get big on him. The idea just didn’t occur. There’s epochal climate crisis coming. But the lethal stage hasn’t landed on his street where life goes on. And then along came Covid. Definitively, finally, big History blew into town, tossing existence in the air. But as Time’s rampaging cossacks trashed the village, he stayed indoors, staring at his laptop.
His German mother was a war child living in a time of upheaval. In nineteen forty four, aged twelve, she and a hundred or so child evacuees departed Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia on foot. With the conflict in Europe into its final year, the children had to quit their safe haven of a Sudeten Catholic nunnery, as they trekked for several days across the Tatras mountains, taking the long route home to Bavaria.
The children tramped down country lanes fringed by fields with sheep and cows, through woods, and across brooks, and up and up and higher, over green hills, passing through small towns, villages and hamlets along the way. At one village in the foot hills, the girls rested in the square outside a church. They sat down to eat their sandwiches and watched as a separate string of German evacuees, all of them young boys, shuffled into view at the far end of the square. Each boy carried one small suitcase and wore a name and destination label tied round their necks with string.
The boys stopped to rest and to eat. They looked over at the girls and the girls looked back at the boys. As Mum gazed across the square at the displaced youths sat cross-legged, her eyes landed on a familiar face. She looked twice and realised she was staring at her younger brother.
They’d been apart for more than a year. All her family had dispersed to different locations amid the chaos. Her younger brother looked at his sister and tentatively waved and she did the same and then carried on eating. And soon, the two parties of children gathered up their things and continued down the road, taking different routes. Her younger brother looked back at his sister as she headed away from him.
Her younger brother. Neither said a word, just a single wave. Her younger brother, who grew up to be a second-hand car dealer. Who went on the run for tax crimes in the mid nineteen eighties. Slipping out of Germany on the quiet, he relocated to southern Spain. On route, he stopped in London and got drunk and did something bad, leaving early the next morning while the house was still asleep. And that was the end of that: his mother never saw her younger brother again. He died years ago. But she only found out recently; at the same time she learned that her older brother was also dead and buried.
On a winter visit with his mum, just him and her and the dog, they scrape over the past. Sat facing the TV, rooting around in her story, he asks what happened? She says she doesn’t know how her brothers died; she assumes it was heart related. He means, what happened to the family ties that bind? Breaking off to blow her nose, she guesses where his thinking’s gone. It was the war, she says, it pulled families apart.
She refers him to other ruptures. In the last months of the conflict, her older brother was conscripted into the German army. Although only fifteen, he was shipped off to the eastern front – human fodder – and was soon after taken prisoner. Her father had a similar experience. Far too old and unworldly, he was nonetheless relieved of his duties as weatherman for Nuremberg airport, and sent off to fight the Russians. Where he also got took.
Rounded up in herds and packed into freight carriages, father and son were transported south to holding camps in the Caucasus, where God’s hand interceded, and in the thick of so many prison camps, so many thousands and thousands of German prisoners, father and son bumped into each other in a stockade near Tiblisi, Georgia. Of all the Soviet prisoner of war camps in all the Soviet Union…
He imagines swarms of thin men in long coats waiting to go home through the long winter of 1946. As hostilities ended, the Soviets started releasing German prisoners. But only in batches and then in dribbles. His mum’s older brother was allowed to return to Germany and went on to become a successful businessman – somewhat happily married with all his daughters virtuoso musicians.
His mum’s father however was never released. Not all the German prisoners made it home. It is assumed his grandfather died somewhere in Georgia but it was never confirmed. He Googles the subject. A recent news story comes back of a Tbilisi builder digging up piles of human remains while breaking ground for a new housing development; and the local authorities unclear what to do with all these German bones.
One day, when he was thirteen and on his way to school, he bumped into his dad on a crowded train platform at Whitechapel Tube station.
He was changing trains and spotted Dad a way down the platform – the unmistakeable beige duffle coat and Russian fur hat. He felt ashamed of his dad and never knew what to say to him, or talk about. Instantly, he turned tail and slipped away in the opposite direction. Went and hid behind a tall green signal unit and several white pillars. He’d be safe here.
After a few seconds pretending to admire the fascinating pillars, he turned round to check he was in the clear. Only to find his dad standing there, staring at his youngest with an angry face on. His dad told him off for being embarrassed of his own flesh and blood. You should be ashamed, he said.
His own flesh and blood. Dad was often high-flown in his speech and frequently persuasive. But not this time. Jesus, of course he was embarrassed by his father. Often, acutely, especially during daylight hours. Dad was the odd geezer striding along East Ham High Street in a poncho. Dubious bright-coloured man bags slung over his shoulder. Kids from youth club walked past laughing.
Later there was the clergyman’s dog collar, because now Dad was a Catholic deacon. Who knew a father could transmogrify into half a priest? Up on the altar on Sunday at church, wrapped in radiant ecclesiastical vestments all the way down to his ankles, dishing out the wine and the host, living his dream – while down in the pews his ‘flesh and blood’ squirmed.
While Chance Meeting is a favourite Roxy Music song, the experience described as bittersweet can be excruciating for some. In the film Blue Jay, former childhood sweethearts Amanda and Jim return to their hometown and stumble across each other out shopping. Two adults who were once deeply in love with so much to catch up on. And yet for a few seconds they visibly weighs their options. Act like I didn’t see? Back away quietly? Get out of there now!
The writer Jon Ronson made a radio show on chance meetings prompted by personal experience. Ronson was walking in Soho on a Saturday afternoon when he saw a friend up ahead, a well-known comedian. Ronson called out. The comedian glanced back, but didn’t acknowledge Ronson as he turned into the next street. By the time Ronson made the same turning, the comedian had vanished. It was puzzling. Ronson looked up and down as he kept on walking, crossing over to the opposite pavement where, behind a parked car, he found the comedian crouching out of sight.
Why was he hiding? Did the comedian not like Ronson any more? Was there an undeclared issue between friends?
Ronson persuades the comedian onto the radio to explain. And though slightly shame-faced, the friend offers a sturdy defence of his behaviour. On the day in question, argues the comedian, with his mood set exclusively to ‘me time’, it really isn’t so strange that he reflexively hid from an unscheduled switch to social.
A Tall Dark Stranger
Our lives run on hidden tracks where a neural dread gets triggered when a surprise jolt comes along. He recalls a past jolt with a shudder. A bad experience walking home one evening.
It was the winter he still lived in London. It was dark and he was on foot, carrying a large shopping bag in each hand. He turned left into the badly-lit alley that threaded between the back of two apartment blocks. Taking the short-cut was risky but shaved thirty, forty seconds off the walk home. Refusing to be destabilised by shadows, or thoughts of bad outcomes, he always came this way – proving to himself he still had the nerve.
As he headed up the pathway, into the shadows, he sensed something was off. A dark figure at the edge of his vision was coming down the slope and his nerve started to wobble. Everything slowed as it does. He considered the state of his hands. With a carrier bag in each mitt he was screwed. Some thing was coming for him, and he was in no state to punch back. He considered dropping the bags as in the next beat the dark shape upped its pace, changing direction, sprinting straight at him. An attack was imminent. A tall hooded male…
The Annoying Son. Oh, bloody hell! The Annoying Son. Off out early for the evening. Always such a friendly son – never mugged his dad once. And yet he’d have clocked him on the chin. Be grateful for shopping bags.
The Annoying Son: who last June travelled up with him to north east London on a hot sticky afternoon. They stopped off at the pub on the way to the registry office. The Annoying Son, who stood smiling as co-witness at his dad’s bijou wedding.
After their super-slim, Covid-secure nuptials, they took an Addisson Lee to a restaurant on Piccadilly. In the ride across town, he sat in the back seat of the people mover with the extra leg room.
Traffic was slow. It was hot and woozy. Staring out the window, his thought world strayed as he slipped into a semi-trance of half-shaped impressions. And although he was looking out onto the choked-up cars, and across to the far pavement, his eyes working perfectly well, he was actually not seeing anything. Not registering, let alone recognising, the woman on the far side of the road waiting to cross at the lights, talking to a young boy hanging by her side. Not really seeing Silba, his ex, until the cab started moving again. And the car accelerated and she was left behind.
There is a scale, a discernible order of magnitude to his selection of chance encounters across the decades. The passing view from a cab. An inter-personal klutz of a son at Whitechapel Tube. His German family scattered by war and peace.
He sits in his mother’s lounge listening to her life-stories over the racket coming off the TV. It’s December, but the air indoors is humid and sticky as the sunlight streams through the French windows. Deploying his good ear, hanging onto her speech as she rummages through times gone by, he questions what such an accumulation of personal history feels like inside. He wants to fathom what this means to her, all of it. (The past isn’t dust, not simply the names of people passed on.) He asks but she bats away the question as being silly, which it is.
He decides that his mother’s life-story, condensed into a single object, resembles a spinning Rololdex of all the anecdotes she recites so well. In the multitude of hours spent by herself, he expects her inner voice rehearses this catalogue of tales – as a kind of meaning, or perhaps its placeholder.
Inside twelves months of his dad’s death, she’s moved on and left the old village behind for a town with a train station and a Catholic church. Relocating to a crescent-shaped close of new-builds just off the by-pass, on the way to Waitrose. So new build, that you can’t get it on the satnav, the box-fresh bungalow has a bewildering heating thermostat, and a small back yard where her dog Bertie shits loads.
The Mother Ship
In the lounge area, she has brought both of the bulky armchairs from the old place; as well as her signature curved roller table, in pine laminate, that she strategically wraps around the armrests and across her lap.
The roller table is multi-functional and reminds him of a control station on the flight deck of the Starship Enterprise. As commander-in-chief of the mothership, Mum has armed the wraparound executive console with a trio of chunky remotes – for controlling the TV, the DVD, and… she’s not sure what the third one does. There’s also a blue-speckled doily, four coasters, a box of tissues, several pens, cut-out coupons, and a miniature set of cardboard drawers – with carefully filed handwritten post-its of essential contacts and reminders.
A copy of this week’s Radio Times is spread open at today’s date, programmes of interest circled in blue ink. This evening’s viewing breaks into three segments: a gardening programme, a cookery show, and the first episode – at nine on Five – of a new two-part murder mystery for Inspector Dalgleish.
Having drunk most of the wine at dinner, his consciousness is, as always, in jeopardy. And although he enjoys the gardening and cookery shows more than he expected, he finds the Dalgleish worse than he’d feared. He drowses, rapidly losing the plot. At the end of the episode, his mum smiles with contentment. Unaware that he’s not been present throughout the show, she tells him she’s looking forward to tomorrow night’s conclusion. He says, me too, as he gets up with a stretch and prepares to push off for the night, back to his hotel.
She steps outside with him. Shoos Bertie into the close for a last pee before sleep-time. They walk a little way down the curved path and stop to linger as the dog turns circles inside a bordered oval of untidy grass. As he waits by her side, the pair of them suspended in silence, peering towards the dark green tufts tipped with silver in the moonlight, his mum breathes deeply and prepares to speak.
You now, she says brightly. You go on. Don’t wait.
That’s it? He’d felt a big speech coming.
He long-legs it to the end of the close, where the night breeze becomes a gust. Looking over his shoulder, his mum remains planted by the grass, waiting for an ever-so picky Bertie to choose his spot.
There she stands – both her parents long gone; and her siblings, she outlived them all. And then she buried her husband too. It’s a long way from Bavaria in her Norfolk new-build, sitting on two cancers and about to turn ninety. There she stands. He waves a last time, but she doesn’t notice. She bloody loves that dog.
Back home in the windy northern city, the afternoon is almost done. Still sprawled upon the beanbag, emerging from his long looping revery, the author recognises he hasn’t done, or read, a thing. He thinks there has to be something tangible he can point to, saying that this was today, as he lifts the first book from the top of the pile. A short graphic novel called Paul at Home.
It’s the latest in a series by French-Canadian graphic novelist Michel Rabaliagti, concerning the mixed fortunes of a French-Canadian graphic novelist Rabaliagti calls ‘Paul’. The writing’s fast and distilled. He reads at pace captured by the easy flow of words and pictures, but also the overlaps: Paul’s midlife; his personality type trends towards Introvert; and he misses his grown-up child.
Paul drives over to his mum’s apartment to take her into the city for a cancer appointment at the big hospital. Waiting while she gets ready, the good son looks round the apartment as though he never really noticed it before. Paul thinks his mother’s home has ‘the blandest interior I’ve ever seen…’ He worries at its lack of personality. ’When you walk in, there’s no telling who lives here… You’d think the place was staged.’
Bothered by the interior blandness, Paul looks for personal clues, or cues, from photo frames to bedside reading. Pausing in front of the vanity table, staring into the mirror, he finds his younger self looking back.
Little boy Paul has a full head of hair; no face strain or stubble; and is actually smiling. He’s stood next to his mother watching her reflection put on her make-up. Where are you going, Mum? asks little boy Paul. But before the memory can answer, his eighty-something mum walks into the room, well turned-out for the oncologist.
It’s not such an outlandish childhood memory. He had a similar thing happen and imagines it is the same for many others. He casts his thoughts back to a Saturday in the nineteen seventies, early evening, watching in the mirror as his Mum applies pink lipstick. Then shortly all of his family get their coats and climb into the car.
They’re driving not to the next town, or the second town along, but the next town after that – for a visit with close comrades of his parents. (Older couple, also communists, colour TV.) The car is crammed because the vehicle is too small for a family of six – plus Labrador. Not every child has their own seat. Being the youngest, he often has to perch on his mother’s lap in the front. (No safety belt.)
The drive takes forever. The car feels stuffy with all these humans pact like sardines. The scent of his mum’s perfume is strong and makes him feel car sick. He needs the drive to be over. For them to be there already.
* The midwinter hitch in the relationship, the tear in the marital fabric… more to come on Kaput
** Work won’t love you back. No, no, no. But lately, work’s been giving lots of strokes. It’s the Great Resignation, where the carrot is mightier than the stick.