Life in the big smoke

Some thoughts on reacting and contemplating and the bipolarity of life

We’ve run out of coffee so I went out with Gerry this morning (it’s Saturday, he’s going to the market) to get a cappuccino. As I walked back a thought struck me about stress, about reacting and contemplating. I’m in a reactive phase right now, I’m a pinball pinged around from one task to the next. The fact that all of those things are interesting and make me happy is irrelevant. What struck me in a cloud of coffee fumes in the elevator was the bipolarity of life.

There are periods when a lot happens, when life rushes by as stream of things to do and days disappear without you even really knowing how. Later, when you find yourself in a slightly quieter phase and look back at these periods they take on a golden shimmer, you remember them as life being lived fully, the rawness of it, the back-against-the-wall-coming-out-fighting, it all seems a lot better later on. They become periods of action and laughter and stress and tears.

But how we spend our days is how we spend our lives, as Annie Dillard writes, so why are the periods of busyness the ones I enjoy the most?

What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time. A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order—willed, faked, and so brought into being; it is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living. Each day is the same, so you remember the series afterward as a blurred and powerful pattern.

“It’s a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time”, that’s what it means to be busy. It protects us from the big picture.

Then there are periods when the stream dries out, the wind stops blowing and time rolls on like tumbleweed. These are occasional contemplative phases, weeks and months when the cogwheels jam and work is slow. There is time to think, to contemplate, to read, to look behind you and to look ahead. Sometimes these are sad periods, sometimes they are soft and philosophical. After a while of slowness my mind starts gnawing on itself, I worry, invent bad things, I become anxious and then I’m gratefully plunged back into a period when everything happens at once and there is enough going on for me to stop ruminating.

It’s feast and famine, it’s sowing and harvest and the quiet winter months. Perhaps this is simply the bi-polarity of life. Perhaps this is only my life, or the life of the self-employed. What I need to remember is that a period of action is normally followed by a period of inactivity. Then the cycle starts again and I remind myself how lucky I am to be alive.

A happy life must be to a great extent a quiet life, for it is only in an atmosphere of quiet that true joy can live. – Bertrand Russell on boredom.

Hello coffee, right now you’re my very best friend

So, life. Sometimes everything happens at the same time. And then it all stops. And then it all goes a bit mad again. At the moment I’m still in a period of “everything-happens-at-once-ness”. I’m sure it can get worse, I’m sure it’s possible to be even more stressed, but I’d rather not spend too much time thinking about that. I’m actually quite happy, as long as there is coffee around.

Here are a couple of things I’ve done lately:

– Seen Richard III in Leicester.
– Done a lot of frowning while figuring out how to write an extensive piece on the UK economy (I’m looking into the productivity gap, it’s very interesting).
– Tried to prepare for our up and coming trip to Japan. We’re leaving in two weeks!
– Served gin and tonics at the opening night of Gerry’s show at the Long White Cloud – go and have a look at it if you’re in Hoxton, the prints are up for two weeks (and there is excellent coffee).
– Upped my caffeine intake significantly.
– Googled art studios in London as we’re losing our lovely place next to Hackney Road. Developers have bought the land. They’re kicking everyone out and we have to leave. It’s sad. It’s life. We move on.
– Finished my third ever fiction manuscript. Not sure what will happen to it yet. My first book should probably have stayed in the drawer, the second one I still need to edit. And now that I’ve finished a third one I’m itching to start a new project. Writing makes my mind purr.

Image by Padurariu Alexandru.

You don’t know the whole story yet

A couple of days ago I stumbled across this taoist tale on the internet. I’ve read it before. Sometimes, when I was younger, I thought this was an annoying attitude to life. Why can’t the old farmer just get excited and happy. Now, when I’m older and going through a period when things are stressful, sometimes confusing and there is a lot of change happening in the lives of some of my loved ones, I think this is a pretty comforting and lovely piece.

An old farmer had a horse. One day it ran away and his neighbours offered sympathy.“What bad news”, they said.
“Maybe,” the farmer replied, “but we don’t know the whole story yet.”
The next day the horse returned, bringing with it three wild mares. The neighbours said: “What great news!”
The farmer simply said: “Maybe, but we don’t know the whole story yet.”
The next day the farmer’s son was thrown by one of the mares while trying to tame it, and broke his leg.
“What bad news,” the neighbours said.
“Maybe,” the farmer replied again. “We don’t know the whole story yet.”
The day after that, conscription officers came to the village to draft young men into the army. They took away all the neighbours’ sons, but left the son of the farmer because he was unable to walk.
The neighbours were desolate at losing their sons, who they feared would go off to die in a war, and were envious of the farmer because he still had his son at home.
But the farmer said, “Let us all wait and see what happens – we don’t know the whole story yet.”

Image by Morgan Sessions.

London’s lost rivers

A while ago i stumbled across a book about the rivers that used to run through London. This place was once criss-crossed by streams and rivers leading to the Thames. Over the years many of them have been drained, pushed underground, hidden and destroyed. But some are still there, underneath our feet.

hidden rivers in london Image via pinterest.

The Tyburn

The river Tyburn, runs from Hamptstead through Regent’s Park towards the heart of the city, Mayfair, Green Park and Westminster. There is also a bit underneath Buckingham Palace where its path is unknown.

In the middle ages Oxford Street used to be called Tyburn Road and some suggest the river crosses the street in the area around Marbel Arch, where the road has a small dip.

The river has also been spotted in other places. When Grays antiques on Davies Street was renovated in the 1970s a stream was supposedly discovered running through its basement. Apparently the river can still be found in said basement, complete with goldfish.

The outfall into the Thames can be seen west of Vauxhall Bridge, where a plaque lists the river’s route.

fleet street Image via pinterest.

River Fleet

This is perhaps the best known of London’s hidden rivers. It also flows from Hampstead Heath and in to the Thames at Blackfriars Bridge. It was a major river in Roman times and is named after the Anglo-Saxon word fleot, which means estuary. Now days it’s slightly less majestic and exists as a large underground sewer.

What’s left of the river flows down through Camden Town and continues to King’s Cross, beside the church of St Pancras, which is said to be one of Europe’s most ancient sites of Christian worship, dating back as the early fourth century.

After King’s Cross the Fleet follows the line of King’s Cross Road, down to Farringdon Road to the Thames where it spills into river from an anonymous arch hidden beneath Blackfriars Bridge.

When the Metropolitan Line was built in 1862 the river was buried under Farringdon Road, supposedly you can still hear water through a grating in the front of the Coach and Horses pub on Ray Street.

london's lost rivers Image via pinterest.

River Walbrook

The Walbrook is one of London’s shortest rivers and it’s a bit of a mystery. I’ve included it here because it’s one of the old rivers that run through the areas of London I know well. It’s not clear where it once flowed, but it’s thought to have started somewhere near the junction of Curtain Road and Holywell Lane in Shoreditch.

It’s possible that Shoreditch was named after a sewer ditch which flowed into the Walbrook. Like most of the city’s old rivers it’s now a sewer.

For more information about London’s rivers check out the London’s Lost Rivers website.

Top image by Rob Bye.

Oh pineapple you horribly devious fruit

There aren’t many things I don’t like just because of the way they taste, but there is one fruit I can’t stand. I’m sorry pineapple, but it’s you, with your sweet, yellow tropical flesh and your prickly skin. Unfortunately pineapple has always made an appearance in my life just before I get a stomach bug.

Strike 1 against the humble pineapple

The first time was my eighteenth birthday party. I know what you might be thinking, eighteenth birthday parties are normally followed by a bit of vomiting. This was different. I had some pineapple upside-down cake with my relatives, was floored by stomach pains and spent the rest of the day laying in a dark room. That was a couple of days before I was due to fly to Cambridge for an interview at the university. I was ill, seriously nervous and, I realise now, not very prepared for what studying English at Clare college would have meant. I flew out in the end, my dad booking a last minute ticket so he could come with me, and I walked around wide-eyed and amazed. I flunked the two interviews by babbling nonsense about Beowulf and then I flew home again.

Strike 2 against the pineapple

After that I avoided pineapple for many years, until I was working late at YLE one night and the only thing that looked appetising in the cafeteria was a plastic tub full of fresh pineapple. How bad can it be, I thought? Next thing I know I’m in a Mexican restaurant in town with some friends, running to the loo to … yes you guess it, vomit. I’m still amazed I managed to get the tram home that night and I spent the next week or so recovering, during which time I read many self-help books and decided it was probably a good idea to quit my job and move to the UK.

Strike 3 against the pineapple

On Monday Gerry and my brother had brought home a fresh pineapple. They encouraged me to eat some and I said no, telling them my story about what the fruit had put me through in the past. I only sniffed a piece and the memories started flooding back. I didn’t eat any.

The next day, which was the day before Gerry and I were due to fly to Finland for a short holiday, I woke up and felt bad, really bad. What followed was what someone else described as all the hangovers in your life coming back to visit you at once. We ended up not going to Finland.

So here I am. Finally feeling a bit better, wondering what kind of strange random chanceness is at work here. I’m starting to think pineapple and stress is not a winning combination.