It might appear peculiar in the cold light of the written word but watching people is a pastime that gives me a great amount of pleasure. I’d like to qualify this by explaining that I don’t hide behind hedges with binoculars or peer out from shaded places with two holes cut into a newspaper. I’m talking about the active engagement of observing total strangers as they go about their business in public places. I know for a fact that I have been ‘spotted’ myself whilst doing this and I am sure that many have considered me to be rather odd. A backwards glance can sometimes be the calling card of a harsh critic.
In those unguarded moments when we are not aware of being scrutinised we all resort to our inner behaviour and reveal much more about ourselves than perhaps we realise. It would be considered rude, for example, to pick one’s nose during a conversation but in the very private sanctity of a car it’s a very different matter. Those who do that seem oblivious to the fact that the windows around them allow light to pass out as well as in.
It is in the public arena, however, that we all fall into a middle ground; a space where we are vaguely on our best behaviour but still engrossed in our private world. It is this state of affairs that fascinate me. Not so much for the specific incidents or events that may unfold but more for the way that a given individual might react, behave and respond. By observing that, I feel, I am gaining a unique character sketch which reinforces the differences between us.
We all do it, whether we are aware of it or not. It’s part of the mechanism which makes us find people attractive; It motivates us to meet new people (or avoid others). We are, as the Americans say: ‘checking each other out’ all the time. Artists have a real knack of doing this but it is not clear if they are artists because of it or in spite of it. Of course, when I say ‘artists’ I am referring to that classless group of people which includes writers, actors, painters, poets and more.
It’s an essential skill for an actor to know the subtle nuances of any given personality type - from the way they raise their eyebrows, for example, to their choice of footwear. Similarly, a writer needs to have an extremely detailed mind-view of a person to bring that character to life in words. Perhaps more so in the case of fiction writers as they are telling us about people who don’t exist and to lie effectively they have to be convincing.
The thing that I like to do most is imagine that everything around me is a tightly rehearsed theatrical production being staged just for my benefit. When I do this, in a place like a coffee bar, the choreography is exquisite as I am able to hear conversational exchanges as they occur and watch all manner of scenarios unfold. On the whole, in these locations, I have found that a lot of men talk mostly about ‘things’ - things they own, things they’d like to own or things they’re passionate about. Women, on the other hand, seem to talk about people and who did what to whom and when. This is a grossly unfair generalisation but the snippets of dialogue that filter through the hubbub do seem to support that premise, time and again.
So the next time you are out and about, take the time to absorb the people around you. Embrace them (figuratively of course) and soak in the rich diversity that is: US. We are an incredibly interesting bunch and as the saying goes: ‘If you can’t find a particular ‘type’ in any crowd, be aware that it might just be you’.
As a comedy footnote to this particular piece, I thought it might be amusing to include a description of the circumstances in which it was written. Partly as a commendation of my technology (which you will see later) but mainly to demonstrate my last point.
I had wandered into a local coffee bar which has a variety of seating. From the tall, breakfast style bar chairs with tables to smaller armchairs and finally - the most jealously guarded of all - huge, enveloping sofas. I was disappointed to find that all the premium spots were taken and was determined to have a comfortable ‘sit-down’, so you can imagine my excitement when I saw that one of the armchairs had been separated from its table and was cast aside next to the massive glass partition which overlooked the river.
Although there wasn’t a table I could use, I reasoned that I could manage by having my laptop on my knee and the coffee on the floor. Having made myself comfortable I attempted to plug in all the various electronica I had brought with me but this was a precarious task. The sides of the armchair were just about armpit height which severely restricted my movement and, as I was struggling to balance things on my lap, the wi-fi dongle that I usually carried slipped off to one side as I leaned over to reach for my coffee.
In a moment of slow motion horror, I watched it land neatly into the cup beside me and sink like the Titanic as I wrestled with wires. Desperate to save the poor thing I leaned over and accidentally emptied the contents of my bag in front of me. I dipped my hand into the hot drink, salvaged the device and shook it - spraying steaming drink onto the people next to me (who, bizarrely, didn’t notice) - and reached for a handkerchief, which came out bringing the contents of my pocket with it. Lee Evans or Norman Wisdom couldn’t have devised a routine funnier in that moment but in spite of its comedy potential, I was less than amused.
As the spectacle subsided, I was aware that whilst most of the people around me were enjoying a serene break as they sipped their mineral waters or read the newspaper, over there - in the corner by the window - was a strange chap, juggling his toys, whisper-swearing, and throwing things about. If I had been looking for a slapstick character to observe, unfortunately it was I, on this occasion and I know that my fiasco had not gone unnoticed.
Much later that same day I switched on the gadget to see if it was beyond redemption but was delighted to find that it was unscathed by its ordeal (as you can see from the photo). Testament, I think you’ll agree, to its robust design (and perhaps just a little good luck on my part).