I’m sat in an Internet cafe in Kirkwall. The Orkney bus (connecting me with Inverness and all my trains back home) left an hour ago.
I’m a numpty.
Coming back from Greece in ’07, a delayed train screwed me over and forced me to buy new tickets (which I recouped some of the cost of, because it wasn’t my fault). This time, I’ve managed to write down the wrong departure time of the Orkney bus into my oh-so-organised travel notebook, and somehow failed to spot the error when I’ve checked through my notes – even though the right time is on the Orkney bus ticket. I can see exactly how it’s happened, even though it’s truly, gloriously dim of me. It’s most assuredly my fault this time.
There’s one rule you should always follow when dining out in York, and it’s this: look up.
My home city is head-scratchingly complicated. Thinking of opening a restaurant within the walls of York? Welcome to a heritage minefield, where you can’t unlatch a window without applying for planning permission first. Everything around you is deeply and highly old, and old to the left and old to the right. You’re stood on the icing of a fabulously stratified cake of Olde Ingredienffe – Roman, Anglo-Saxon, Viking, Medieval, Pre-Industrial, Post-Industrial, ’70s Concrete Abomination, you.
Nothing to do with Jason Statham, thankfully. No – I’m actually talking about mechanical power. And it’s something I feel strongly about.
Labor-saving. Labour-saving. However you spell it, it’s become a curse.
The theory is great. We use technology to make our lives more efficient, allowing us to automate the dull tasks and concentrate on the important ones. However, more often it’s like this: we use technology to make our lives easier. But do we actually need our lives easier?
Human beings are not designed to just sit. We sit in all sorts of places: in cars, at work, in front of the TV. We sit because many technologies bring the world straight to our lap. That’s not a problem if you’re using the time saved to go away and do something else that keeps you in shape and engages your brain. But that’s not usually the case: we usually spend the time doing more of the same activities that involve sitting down.
This has a lasting effect on our bodies (not helped by the poor nutritional content of many types of prepackaged food – another name for them being convenience food – as in “easier”). And since the mind is a part of the body, this has a profound effect on our brain. Depression, anxiety, mood-swings, bi-polarity disorders, attention deficit problems. All too often these are signs that our bodies and minds aren’t getting what they need.
So we need exercise. And that’s what many of us do, myself included. After work, we go to the gym, or run on a treadmill at home, or pad round the block wearing lycra. The main reason isn’t fun – it’s to keep in shape. In perspective, this is bonkers: all day we enjoy labour-saving technologies at work and around the home, and in the evening we force ourselves through ‘artificial’ exercise routines to make up the difference. No wonder we never seem to have enough time. (Of course, on a Corporate level this makes twisted sense: it’s the employee who has to make up this physical shortfall in his or her own time).
The more industrially developed a society is, the more its inhabitants are encouraged to pursue energy-saving practices….without thinking about why they might want to do so.
Fact is, we’re biological machines. We need a certain amount of steady mechanical work throughout our day, or we start rusting, in all sorts of subtle ways.
Every one of these suggestions is not universally applicable. Every one is idealistic and relatively non-pragmatic. Every one needs a lot of work. (For example, if you’re in a wheelchair or if you can walk but your mobility is severely impaired, the last thing you want is more stairs. Not universal).
1. Workplaces that require more effort to get around. Designers: instead of central hubs of elevators – use stairs. If people cannot use the stairs, give them a swipe-card to an elevator that keeps everyone else out. Turn stairwells not into shabby grey liminal places tacked on with an afterthought, but airy, spacious, panoramically windowed places to escape to when you need a break. Make them desirable.
2. …and cities that are built to the same principle. Getting rid of escalators except in special swipe-card cases for those who need to use them. Rethinking walkways and pathways so they’re more fun and energetic. Putting subtle gradients everywhere, invisibly working out calves and ankles. More pedestrian bridges, please. More greenery to encourage us to walk around (and if designers and councils don’t do something, others will).
3. We Earn Our Electricity. Imagine. Your activities create energy: you store this energy: it’s yours, to expend however you wish – to supplement a set ration of energy you’ve been allotted by your local council. It’s Draconian and distinctly anti-capitalist, but I think in half a century these kinds of desperate proposals will be on the table anyway. It’d be nice if we actually managed it with a bit of foresight. Your every movement has the potential to generate electricity, say, by dynamo (why haven’t whirring bike wheels and car wheels been widely tapped as battery-chargers?) or piezo-electrically (such as sensors under your carpet, converting your footsteps into current). There’s a universal personal battery standard – let’s call it the “PB” – and every small- to medium-sized household appliance has a socket for a PB. You generate electricity by going for a walk to the shop for a pint of milk, then you use that electricity to boil the water for your cup of tea. And so on. Devices like the HyMini (above) are a healthy step in the right direction.
4. Following the last point – if we’re going to keep using gyms, let’s make them power-stations. Going on your treadmill for 45 minutes will generate power- and you have the option of using that generated power to pay off some of your gym bill (they can divert it straight into the energy they expend running the place), or you can “upload” it into your PB and go home. Right now, our energy-collecting technologies probably aren’t efficient enough to make this practical. But knowing our ingenuity, they soon will be. And if we can harvest useful electricity or savings when we go work out, it’s a powerful incentive to get a sweat on.
5. Question The Easy Way. I don’t want to bring down the Labour government or the Republicans (no, wait) or capitalism or any component of the modern world. I’m about as political as Mr Bean. But if there’s one obvious thing wrong with how the world works, it’s this: trust. Unquestioning, blind trust. In particular, we trust advertisers too much. When we’re told that a product or service is “better”, we assume that it’s going to unquestionably improve our lives – and this makes logical sense, because it’s more efficient or it’s labour-saving or automated or very very clever-looking. However, if somebody is selling something to us, they’re almost certainly going to be focussed on making money – anything else is our problem. Not using their product correctly? Our problem. Fail to adjust our lifestyle accordingly for our own benefit? Our problem. Advertisers will be naturally inclined to try to sell the best-case scenario, how a product could improve a lifestyle, and leave realism out of the picture (as the saying goes, ‘they deal in dreams’). Their motives need to be questioned, all the time.
So it requires a change in attitude. Right now, we’re culturally hardwired to associate the word “saving” with the word “good”, every time……except for one example I can think of – the phrase “corner-cutting”. This negative term, which ostensibly means the same as “time/energy-saving”, suggests a bad job – of work detrimental to the final product. I’d argue there’s a lot of corner-cutting going on in today’s world, hidden but right out in the open. We’re being encouraged to cut corners everywhere.
6. Neutralise The Hard Way. Turn ‘the hard way’ of doing things into a neutral thing, without a negative value attached, without being undesirable from the get-go. We should assess the benefits of doing things the hard way in exactly the same way we assess the benefits of doing things more easily. We may end up wanting to pick the tougher route. We may not. Just as long as we think about why we make the choices we make. “Hard” does not equal “bad” (if it did, gyms would be positively Satanic).
Personally, I’m rather a fan of choosing the hard way to do things, by default. (This probably makes me Tiresome To Be Around, so apologies to everyone who knows me personally).
Some people look down on tea-making. The job title tea boy is synonymous with the lowest rung of the task ladder. If you’re making the tea, you’re probably a temp or you’ve been very bad (“what do you mean, you crashed the server? Oh, go and make the tea”). In my mind, this is criminal. Beverage making, whether with tea or coffee or some other faintly narcotic dried vegetation, is an enormously empowering social ritual. One of the most important anywhere.
No, really. From Japanese tea ceremonies to quick brews in the trenches on the Western Front, having a cuppa is an established social focal-point for morale, for the renewal of relationships, for emotional investment. In Archaeology, feasting (roast hogs, quaffing and so on) is recognised as performing a similar role in pre-industrial societies.
What does ’emotional investment’ mean? Well, how do you feel about a person when they make you a really good cup of tea? Served in a pristine mug with a quality ‘mouth-feel’ to the rim? Maybe on a little saucer? Interpersonal magic, it is. I dare anyone not to feel fuzzy-warm and perked up after a Grade-A-for-presentation brew.
In business, you’re continually meeting new people – for example, reps. They don’t know you, and it takes time for them to relax in your company, for them to trust you to a level where you can do business properly. Now, the Japanese have known for centuries that tea-making is the way to get people on your side. But here in the West, I reckon we generally treat it with less respect than it deserves (at least formally).
This disrespect might go like this.
Boil the kettle, and leave to cool for at least 10 minutes.
Grab a cup: in many cases, any old scabby tarnished mug will do, dragged out of a dusty cupboard and half-heartedly run under the hot (read lukewarm) tap in the sink so the water beads on the grime rather than washes it away.
Throw in a teabag and add hot water and milk (or, particularly wrongly, milk and water first and teabag last), allow some to fashionably dribble down one side of the mug, leaving a pool of tea to dry into a nasty clarty mess similar to fly-paper.
Drag the steam-inflated teabag out with an inept scoop of a bent teaspoon before the bag has done its work, spilling even more of the resulting pale grey liquid, and finally approach the bemused rep with a half-full, half-clean, lukewarm mug of something that’s verging on an insult with a handle.
When I was first at my current workplace a year ago I was on tea duty. Whenever a rep arrived to see my boss, or when someone from within the company popped by, I leapt for the kettle. I started to buy in a few interesting tea and coffee variations (thanks to those fine people at Whittard of Chelsea), and soon I had a colourful selection squirrelled away in the office kitchen or “tea-point” (the bizarre Strawberry Tea is still in there). I made sure the mugs were really clean, and that a gleaming matching cup & saucer were always available. Some colleagues thought I was being…..a bit eccentric.
But it worked. I peddled my wares with abandon, and gradually, I gained power. With time, I could have built an army from them. An army that would never sleep. I could have marched on Parliament, day and night. I believe it’s a mark of my character that I chose to do otherwise.
Don’t knock tea. It’s liquid gaffer tape, binding Britain together, past, present and future. Tea cracks the genetic code of the United Kingdom. If you want to understand a Brit, watch his/her face during a really good cup of tea – it’s when we’re at our most unguarded. It encourages a way of thinking that is outside the conventional boundaries of grammar and logic, as displayed in the phrase “How do you want your tea – strong, weak, or just right?”
Tea is power.
And so it logically follows that tea-making is a method of accumulating power.
So when you’re at work and everyone starts toying with their mugs and leaning back in their chairs in that meaningful way…you know what to do.
This is because broadly speaking and generalising wildly, I’m a grown-up.
Please excuse me the following rant / soliloquy.
(I like to vent occasionally: it makes me a better person the rest of the time, in theory).
I love a good story (and yes, I’m a scifi/fantasy geek, but not exclusively). I want my brain in knots, I want it to flop around in surprise and I want to feel the warm, delicious summer’s-evening glow of seeing all the pieces of a story fit together so seamlessly that it suddenly makes a Whole I’d never even dreamed of, painlessly squeezing my soul so nothing is quite the same afterwards.
Some films fit that bill. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and Alien changed me – as did Gladiator but in an entirely different way (the plot was pure Xbox – but the lighting and the music made up for it). An Oscar-winning Redford film called Ordinary People changed the way I saw relationships – and Mary Tyler Moore, whose performance was chilling (netting her a Best Actress nomination). Of the hundreds – yes, only hundreds – of films I’ve seen, a fair few have left me a different person.
But not recently.
Oh, how I enjoyed The Matrix. It was clever, it was cool, it had something to say. Oh, how I’ve hated everything the Wachowski brothers have done since (V For Vendetta least of all, because I only curl my lip with contempt at that one). But again and again they get the money to carry on. So does Uwe Boll. So does Roland Emmerich, whose latest film, 2012, looks like yet another orgy of completely uninvolving lowbrow CGI-masturbation. The special effects are amazing. I bet the plot will make my brain vomit. Millions are spent on these films. They’re dreadful fiction. This is the pattern.
Okay, there are exceptions. And for three glorious years, we had 3 colossal films from Peter Jackson which combined vast amounts of well-spent money with a largely well-penned script.
But generally, the films that make the biggest ping on the radar are usually the ones that let us down. Even the great ones have a few why-did-you-do-that moments, such as the unforgiveableness of the ice-planet section of JJ Abrams’s recent Star Trek. I rather loved the film until that happened. Why did you do that to me, dude? Why did nobody stand up in a scriptwriting meeting and say “I hate to sound negative, JJ, but if I’m going to be completely straight with you, I think this part here is a sack of navel-lint. Tell me it isn’t.”
So – I reckon modern films are too often an inadequate mess. But what makes TV any better?
The answer is that TV has grown up a damn sight quicker than films, even taking into account its far greater breadth and output. I think the average intellectual demands of a serialized TV drama show are far higher than the demands of the average modern film drama – in other words, a slightly altered version of Steven Berlin Johnson’s thesis. I think this applies pretty much across the board, including with comedy. I think TV is the only place where writers can truly get under the skin of their characters and allow us to find out who they really are. I think TV is where the edgy, peering-through-your-fingers stuff happens. TV takes more risks.
For this reason, for all its shortcomings and vast swathes of middling nonsense…I think TV is better Art.
(Nobody mention Heroes. I don’t want to talk about Heroes. It’s too painful).
And we have Lost – a mega-whopper of a hit that is deeply, unashamedly, ubergeekily science fiction yet has maintained a massive following, even despite a frustratingly inconclusive second season and an initially meandering third. Lost has had the time to get to grips with all its characters (too much time, you could argue) and it’s done a sterling job. The final season is on the horizon in the States, and I think – I dearly hope – I know what they’re going to do with it. If they do, it will be an awesome and beautiful Whole. It will be a slice of dazzling wonder and it will make everyone’s toes wiggle with excitement and joy. It will be damn good Art.
Please excuse me while I enthuse wildly on this subject.
A Matter Of Fact
Remember those long summer holidays where you bronzed your limbs by cycling helter-skelter down country paths, enjoying the movement of the pit of your stomach when you hit a bump and relishing your own power and immortality? You’ll be the previous generation, then. Nowadays it’s a bitch of the highest magnitude to prise teenagers away from their electronic other halves, and combined with the reaction to the popular media’s dog-with-a-bone respray of the British Isles as the “Paedoph Isles”, kids just aren’t roaming like they used to. Slowly but surely, we’re unlearning to ride.
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