Writing task: One journey, two perspectives

Working my way through a creative writing exercise book I came across this task, which I undertook with my Dad.

‘Go on a walk or a journey with someone; make notes, and write two passages about it afterwards. Compare the different styles, topics and conventions of your accounts of the same event.’

We went to a cafe near my parents’ home, and had a cuppa whilst waiting for Mum to finish work. Here are our alternate-generational travel reports on our trip to a rubbish British high street.

Dad

The rather dilapidated frontages of Wimborne Road, showing the effects of recession, neglect and age, creep by, offering sometimes surprising things. A funeral director’s with an England World Cup display in the window; betting shops without one; a Big Issue seller dozing in the Sun. The traffic flows around us as we cross some of the many roads that feed into the main ‘drag’, as people used to call it. Traffic seems to me sometimes like some huge organic entity, every cell destined for a specific location and flowing according to the dictates (signs and lines) of the body of the city: Bournemouth and Poole are much bigger than most people think, about half a million people crammed into a seaside sprawl, their numbers inflated by students both British and from abroad, the latter attending the many English colleges around. Thought the foreign student who spat forcefully on the pavement as we passed was letting his nation down a bit.

One of my favourite lorries passes: Suttle Stone Quarries, it says. I wonder about these subtle stone quarries. Do they tap gently with small picks rather than use dynamite, to avoid disturbing the neighbours? Do they fit extra-quiet engines to the lorries, and let them out only during the day so everyone can sleep? Is there a rival firm called Blatant Stone Quarries, noisy, brash and with monster trucks that screw up the environment and infuriate the locals?

In the café where we pause, the man at the next table turns out to be one of the Self-Righteous brothers. He has a negative opinion on most things, and dominates the conversation with the woman opposite him. “Brazil? Not likely, get stabbed on the first day, probably by little kids; always used to be sunnier in June but look at all these clouds, global warming of course; so I said to ‘im, look, if you do it that way there’s no way you’ll get her back…..” .

Trawled the charity shops on the way back, and find of the day was an unopened Solar System jigsaw. Perhaps the child I sell it to will do what I did, and be inspired by it, as I was by a library book at age 10, and become a planetarium person or a professional astrophysicist…

Me

“There is nothing of note about this,” I thought “except for how bland and unremarkable it is.” It was as ugly a British high street as the majority of its counterparts, but it was long. Long enough that it persisted over the horizon in royal blue and stark red takeaways; deep pink nail bars; and plastic pubs painted to look like wood, as though desperately trying to be nonchalant about how real they were. The endless commerce peeled, and the brighter its colours, the more drab it appeared.

As Dad and I continued through the forced, stained rainbow (stainbow?), a wall-mounted metal ashtray hung glaringly open by the door of one of the rubbish pubs.

“There! Now that’s true.” I exclaimed, privately. I lamented my lack of camera; there was something suddenly exciting about this filthy high street owning up to itself. I could see its insides, and it was gross. I loved it. A black molasses of Embassy, Mayfair, and Rizlas buried under a more recent layer of rainwater and orange, and once more by the grey remainder of pacifier after pacifier, slumped together in a redundant, toxic paste. I was once again reminded why I quit, and felt smug. Then uneasy, as I thought of all those wonderful human insides still inviting that deadly, anti-feeling syrup to be a part of them.

Just seeing it made me more aware of the atmosphere around me. I’ve noticed recently that pollution makes the inside of my nasal cavity hurt. To quell my paranoia I asked Dad how far away we were.

“It’s just on the horizon there, you see?”

I did. Finally.

As I continued up the hetero-high street in my ill-fitting dress, I wondered whether my multifarious and vague sense of unease was rooted in multifarious and vague geography. Being back in and around my hometown is a comforting and compromising experience; like a sudden scent, it can transport me from being back in the nest to being back in the grip of a particularly unhappy time – 12 onwards – one of fierce self- and peer-cruelty. I had to remind myself that I wasn’t in danger.

“Focus on the writing task. The present, not the past. This is about this, not that.” I couldn’t extricate my feelings about this place from my feelings about my adolescence.

The woman who ran the cafe was very sweet; as I ordered a decaf latte she glanced at me and smiled, looking pleasantly surprised. As I tried to decipher why, the wheel slowed in my head and clicked to a halt at “she thinks my accent is funny.” I never decided whether that funny was joyous or condescending. Her American accent was very charming. I wondered if this strip-mall road was like a quaint model village for her.

Finally we sat, and after a wholly negative pull on the walk so far (the guy sitting next to us was basically Jay’s Dad from The Inbetweeners: “Brazil’s a deathtrap and no one speaks English, I wouldn’t”), sitting down with Dad reminded me how privileged I am to come from this particular family in this particular lame, homogenous seaside town. I wondered what he was making of this – things rarely faze him. He is much less particular than I…I think. He’s so unfazed I can never be sure.

A bus chugged away outside the open cafe door, and the warm fumes poured into my face.

“That’s French, that.” noted Dad.

“Which…what?”

“See on the bus there: ‘Yellow Buses, RATP Group’, that’s the Regie Autonome Transports Parisiens, they own the Metro and bus services etc. in Paris. It’s like EDF Energy, you know them? They’re French. And SITA. That’s a French company.”

“Globalisation, innit?” I always feel like an ignorant teenager in conversation with Dad – luckily he’s a very good and kind teacher.

“It’s like countries are trying to take each other over, push each other out. But everybody wants it, it seems. So that’s how it’ll be.” I don’t subscribe to his matter-of-factness, however.

“It is changing though, Dad. There’s a massive anti-consumer and anti-capitalist movement growing, and it’s organising…” I trailed off with disappointment as my lack of evidence at the changing tide of society and the Good Revolution sapped at my enthusiasm.

“Well, yes. A couple of McDonalds’ were burned down in France, although I think it was a protest at the debasement of cuisine rather than a protest at globalisation. And BP, of course, stands for British Petroleum, right? But on their website, they’re…” Dad made a fancy hand gesture – “Beyond Petroleum!”

We both snickered. “I think ‘No you’re not.” he said. “You sell petroleum.'”

As the Francais-owned bus, the one sign of multiculturalism in Winton besides the American cafe we sat in, rolled away, I thought again about leaving Britain for somewhere. I wonder where I will settle, where I will be when I am Dad’s age? Will there be enough petroleum to get me back to him?

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Moore, Burchill and Those Opposed (aka Taking Offense)

Offended1For anyone not yet acquainted with MooreBurchillTransGate (it’s catchy!), a summary of the offense taken so far reads as follows:

Throughout life, culminating in Nov 2012: Susanne Moore takes offense at the fact that women continue to be patronized, under-represented, reproductively-controlled, hyper-sexualized, sexually assaulted, and are then criticized for being angry about it.

Jan 8th 2013: Moore tweets that the article about the offense she’s taken has been republished in the New Statesman. @Jonanamary tweets in reply that she “was loving” the article until she took offense to it.

Later on Jan 8th 2013: @Jonanamary and Moore tweet increasingly fiercely about the specificities of the offense taken, whilst continuing to offend each other.

Jan 13th 2013: Julie Burchill (friend of Susanne Moore and “Bernard Manning of feminism” – Dr Tim Stanley) takes offense at the offense taken by @Jonanamary and others, and also takes offense to “trannies” (“who are lucky [she’s] not calling them shemales”) offending her friend in response to offense that was taken.

Later on Jan 13th 2013: Everyone takes offense from Burchill.

Jan 14th 2013: I take offense from everyone.

Lordy. Throughout the collision of wills, egos and hurt feelings, relevant and fascinating concerns around free speech; the volatility of politically correct semantics; intersectional feminism; and the apparent futility of trying to conduct and sustain reasonable debate around important issues of equality were served up and backhanded away into obscurity. Livid and appalled as I naturally was at this prejudiced attack on my species’ collective progression, I loaded a random working-class militant journalist’s Twitter feed and filled dialog box upon dialog box with hundreds of characters of blindly reactive hatred, before sheepishly taking a breath, having a sit down and reordering the characters in a word document. I was writing all the right characters, just not necessarily in the right order.

The particular offense I took from the ‘Twitter Storm’ concerned Everybody Involved’s failure to capitalize on the opportunity to attempt to understand their opponents, to ask any pressing questions, to actually discuss anything. Nobody typed more than 280 characters without giving up on what could have been an enlightening, worthy debate. The result was a Pong match of snide implications/explicit statements that the offense-causer could fuck right off, convinced that each instance of talk-to-the-hand one-upmanship had won them the moral high ground.

Unfortunately, at no point did Moore think it appropriate to apologise for making the original un-PC gaffe. Moore’s comment about the “transsexual” body referred (I assume) to the expectation on ‘cis’-women to attain, and retain, standards of surgically enhanced bodily ‘perfection’; a standard reflected, incidentally, by some trans women’s bodies in their oft-surgically-altered appearance. Explicitly transphobic, no (although her latter comments were hugely questionable). Misjudged and semantically incorrect, yes sir (or lady….or….*sweats*).

For the offended, a recognition of this was necessary, and, I reckon, an apology was warranted. No need to lose face, or to lose the intended meaning of the comment, or indeed the article as a whole (a hugely worthwhile read). Just a simple apology to some hurt people, for dropping the semantic ball. After publishing, this is all she could have done to amend, and it’s not asking much. Unfortunately, once Moore had taken counter-offense to @Jonanamary, her ‘give a fuck’ attitude (a la Caitlin Moran’s knee-jerk reaction to questions of racial representation in programming) shut down any potentially rewarding discourse on the complex politics of gender normativity, inclusion/exclusion, solidarity re: equality, etc etc….

Whether or not an apology would have been accepted, we’ll never know. But it likely wouldn’t have mattered anyway: Burchill marched in with an unnecessary input, titled ‘Transsexuals should cut it out’ (as though each and every “trannie” had chosen to be involved in the sulkfest). What followed was the opposite of Moore’s article; perhaps one good point hidden within several yawningly provocative paragraphs of name-calling. I’m not sure it’s worth going into the minutiae of Burchill’s tirade, and subsequent free-for-all; there may yet be more to follow.

Lynne Featherstone MP made the offense taken a government issue, and John Mulholland, editor of the Observer, withdrew Burchill’s article the following day. That was yesterday. And still, no one had said anything remotely intellectually stimulating, except Moore in the first instance. Since yesterday, however, I have found a few considered responses, such as Paris Lees’ open letter to Moore, which developed the discussion with the vigour and candour originally displayed in Moore’s piece. Lees writes a kind, enlightening and exemplary plea to Moore to simply understand the frustration she and others have felt in the face of chronic discrimination…. sound familiar, Suze?

Of course, Twitter’s very public and very limited format led to the unraveling of what should have been quickly amended. Moore was understandably defensive about an emotionally charged, hugely personal piece of work, and people were understandably hurt by her ignorance to pain and anger they know far too well (like yours, Suzanne! See? Let’s all be friends and live in uninterrupted harmony! We’re all the saaaaaaaaame. Kinda.)

I fear that too much has been lost in the unnecessary negativity, but again I hope that considerate responses will be formed…read Moore’s article (I wouldn’t bother with Burchill’s, even if it was still freely available), Lees’ response, and any other articles written in between that focus on the complexity of the issues at hand. In future takings of offense, take a breath, and seek to understand exactly what’s going on. Why wouldn’t you want to form a dignified, genuine response?

To paraphrase* Jay Smooth of the each-and-every-time-worthwhile Ill Doctrine, the fact that we have made such progress towards equality is not a reason to care less about what we say to each other, and how that makes them feel. It’s the reason we should care more.

(*I’m paraphrasing because I can’t find the video in which he says this. A great excuse to go watch some Ill Doctrine right now; let me know if you find it?)