My friend Emma was telling me about someone she used to know who told her this story: that when he was a student he was annoyed about the waste of paper, so he went to some committee or other and suggested some solution or other and lo and behold a few weeks later he saw that his suggestions had been implemented. This taught him that by going through the right channels you could get things done. The person in question is now making his way in politics. Emma told me that on three seperate occasions she heard this guy tell this story to different people. It was, she said, his identifying story.
Which made me think. Perhaps we all have an identifying story. It would be the one we churn out on a first date. The story that best defines us, or, at least, the one that, in our own mind, set us on a certain trajectory. Boring people tend to have a very clear idea about what their identifying story is because their knowledge of themselves is dead knowledge. And then, of course, people who are forever defining themselves are the dullest people. They say things like ‘I’m not the kind of person who stands for that kind of thing…’ and ‘I have my own way of doing things…’ Borish stuff.
We can all remember trying not to betray to an interlocutor that we have already heard a story they are recounting and us having to self-consciously post up an interested mien, and, worryingly, also when telling a story that moment when we suddenly realise we’ve already told that story before, and to the same person who is staring at us looking for all the world as if they are interested.
Before getting on the plane in Baden-Baden there were a couple of hours to kill, so I went with my friend Remy to the modern art gallery of that town. Of the exhibition there are certainly things to say but I won’t do so here. What struck me more than anything else was the hyper-pristine state of the gallery. We were the first in at ten o’clock. I happened to be wearing a suit because there was no room for it in my hand luggage but even I was a huge disappointment to the gallery. In fact, all visitors and staff are massively out of place in the sparkling white, dustless environment of polished chrome and immaculate surface. At one stage I needed to go to the toilets. The coffee had got to me. I disappeared into the pod of the cubicle and to my eternal shame produced a rather messy number two. We are not worthy.
A word on the exhibition. The work of the artists was probably closer to my number two than to the white light of the gallery. By which I do not mean that the art was shit. Rather, its preoccupation was the animal and the primitive, rather than the controlled and the sanitised.
The young man sitting in the airport in Baden-Baden was wearing his baseball cap with the peak towards the front, but before getting up to go across and get a bottle of water he turned it round to set the peak behind. On returning to his seat he reset the baseball cap peak to the front. A few minutes later when he got up to join the queue to get onto the plane to Stansted he turned the peak back round to face behind.
Here is my theory. The front-facing baseball cap is for interiority, focus, dialogue with intimates, the bubble of social media. The back-facing baseball cap is for interface with the public. It denotes disdain and nonchalance. It rejects intensity and engagement. That is because we reserve our best for the private and the distant interlocutor and our worst for the public, the sweaty alien.
In my investigations into the semiology of the baseball cap (a reader-friendly book along with gift cap will come out just in time for Christmas) I thought I could discount the side-worn baseball cap, surely now obsolete or at least only sported by the pre-teen. And then today I saw a side-wearer: a man in his forties with big stomach and in his long shorts stocky hocks. My semiotics abandon me! I am at a loss! Stop the press on that stocking filler.
I was at an airport the other day. The airport was Stansted. I don’t like airports. It seems to me that airports display those aspects of society best designed to most exacerbate me. When you get through security they sit you in the centre of a carrousel of all the outlets you might spend your life trying to avoid, a ampitheatre of crap shops. Modern Man, including Modern Child, needs his accessories. He needs for his lightweight hand luggage to be on wheels, which extends his length three or fourfold, like some prehistoric reptile with an enormous tail. If he does not have wheeled luggage he has a back pack liable at any moment to clatter you on the side of the head. Modern Man is also bulkier than he once was. Modern child is bulkier too. Modern child can get very bulky. And both need more stuff. Phones; laptops; tablets; various forms of listening device; big headphones. Without them he is unable to function. In fact, with the headphones on the ears and the eyes on the smartphone Modern Man is mostly working in a state of sensory deprivation and with the reduced mobility of some lower life form. God only knows the mincemeat Primitive Man would make of Modern Man in a battle for survival. Planes aren’t much better than airports. The flourish required by Modern Man to sit down in his seat on entering the aircraft can only be compared with the flourish he requires when exiting a cimema. This I have noticed is an exceptionally unwieldy performance. He comes out to a fanfare of trumpets as if to say I have seen this film and you in the queue to see it have not. Give me space to exhibit the peacock feathers of my temporal priority. This, by the way is just one of the reasons I rarely go to the pictures nowadays. Add to that the unwieldiness of popcorn buckets and you will understand my position.
Psychologists sometimes ask you questions about whether you are happy or not. They know it’s a daft question but they think that even though they don’t define happy and everybody has a different version of what it is to be happy and different expectations about how happy you need to be to be happy abound, if you think you are happy, then that tells them something useful. Of course, everyone is selling happiness. Macdonalds; One Direction; Red Nose Day. What might be happening, of course, is that we smuggle other stuff through with it, as in the case of Macdonalds, which smuggles through exploitation, commercial values, the triumph of the big corporation, obesity, hypocrisy. Sometimes what also comes through along with the happiness is other stuff too. The feeling you get when your shoulders sink. And it might be that over time your shoulders start to sink whenever you hear that word.
Spirituality is another one of those words where my shoulders sink. What does it tell you when a person tells you they are interested in spirituality? It means they think they’re better than you because you aren’t saying you’re spiritual. It means perhaps they have a pretty dim view of human activity that doesn’t label itself as spiritual. Somebody told me they were interested in the spiritual quest today. Spiritual people use the word quest a lot. I think I just look for stuff. Anyway, I just nodded and went off to another corner of the room where there was less spirituality going on. I hope my shoulders didn’t sink too much.