A reliable life

Queens, New York City, and the E train to the Jamaica Center. We were heading to JFK airport. Everything seemed to be going to plan, but why did the screen not show Jamaica Center as the end of the line? What was “Jamaica – 179 St”? The driver announced that due to engineering our train was running to Jamaica – 179 St and that for JFK we should change at Kew Gardens for a bus. With two children, luggage and a plane to catch, please not a bus replacement service!

In the end we were fine and the streets of Queens have inspired some future travels on Long Island. Handy for future NYC trips, I now know a little of the Jamaica area and that it’s easier to take the train from Penn station. There is almost always an upside.

It is very hard to think of the upside of a months-long general shutdown.

What is the difference? The length of time is of a different order, months rather than days. The scale of something can change its category: because a short period of factor, say a delay, is fine does not mean that a long period of it is also fine. Secondly we think of lockdown as a general inability, in most countries or states, to do everything in life that we want to. It affects much of life rather than just one aspect. These two factors are enough, but there is something else.

When we set off on the Subway we know that something unexpected might happen. We can still plan, hope, embark, and then adjust as we go along. When a shutdown is advertised in advance and when we are told it will last some time, we cannot even plan. An intricate set-up of travel arrangements, people and shops and all the images and experiences that we hope will go along with them, fails somewhere between conception and planning.. and in many cases, and increasingly, won’t even be conceived. We cannot rely on being able to do things.

What are we to think, now that life has been shown to be unreliable?

In fact the situation is worse than unreliable. To be unreliable would mean that trains might break down from time to time. We know that. Now, however, we are told expressly not to rely on advertised dates for reopening. Politicians go out of their way to stop us from planning. It could hardly be less settling.

Life was straightforward, in the absence of pandemics and the lockdowns that we now realise are apt to accompany them. If we wanted something then we did it, subject to the normal constraints of money, time, health and the normal sensible rules that we all agreed upon. Now we know nothing.

The reliability is not only missing in the moment (or rather the month). We have lost a sense that life continues regardless, that there is an understanding of this constant forward pressure, of the basic freedoms of travel and of association. Now, do we dare to rely on these freedoms five or ten years into the future, or within the year ahead? We will live normally, of course, and get used to things again, some of us better than others, but the thought will always be there.

Our default friends and family

What was that smell of toast? Each morning at 11am as classes turned over and I checked my email in the computer room, the warm smell would drift through the corridors of Bristol’s economics department. Later I put two and two together. The department’s cleaning staff were having a daily brunch party.

Once, a glimpse through an open door told the intricate tale. I imagine, but am fairly sure I’m right, that having broken the back of the morning’s work there would be a joyful rush to set up the food and drink. A good dozen workers gathered around the table, the rush of pleasure when it has come time for longed-for snacks, the prospect of the end of the working day. Maintenance staff would join in. An ever so slight feeling of beating a system in a building at once calm and aloof.

Each point in our lives is marked, among other ways, by that particular group of people with which we spend most time. We might not even realise who they are, but with a little reflection we could produce the list, our list, the story of the background socialising of our lives.

One highlight of my own list is the card school in third year of senior school, tables pushed together and fabourite games understood by all. Form groups and shared enthusiasms come and go, and later my normal, reliable, default, social situation is the group of friends whose travel plans see them arrive early for school, gathered under the verandah waiting for the gates to open. Later it is the graduate students in our basement flat, sometimes going into college to eat, otherwise sharing food in our kitchen. Then at work I got used to the small group of people, sharing as we did a carpet in a London mews building and spending more time with each other than with anyone at home. Almost all of us could produce a similar list, often unglamorous and unremarkable, always the actual tale of our lives. If we opted to meet up with other friends then we might feel that we did so through choice and that these chosen meetings were better, the real story of our interests and friendships, but our regular background work-and-school groups remain the backdrop to everything else.

Where in the world are we sure that we’ll discuss last night’s TV?

It is possible that much of the time we resent the compulsion of these associations, the intimacy of colleagues, the inability to escape except at lunchtime. We could say that these people are the friends and family that we can’t choose. They are still friends and family.

What then is the effect of an enforced and prolonged absence from our default friends and family? We might feel a thrill at not having to mix with the same people; perhaps we are solitary or introverted by nature. The fact is that we lose a substantial element of socialisation and humanity, for good or bad, in our days, weeks and months. Over time our ability to get along with others in situations in which we have to get along with them, will become dulled.

Most importantly of all, the story of our social lives will forever be altered and will forever have been blank for the duration.

Some people need adventure

Zurich, Switzerland, and an afternoon free between flying in and taking the train to St Anton in Austria. I remember the email that I wrote in the coffee shop that I found. It was one of the more memorable of my coffee explorations, where I would pinpoint a new independent coffee shop on the map and wander into a new district to find it.

This was a trip to look at the Zillertal area above Mayrhofen, Austria, scouting for a new route for Alpine Exploratory. After St Anton I continued by train to Innsbruck and took buses for a day’s walk above town, then moved on to Mayrhofen. A part of my visit was to find a good hotel and in the course of four nights and four different hotels I found three that were excellent and one that was exceptional. At the end of my trip I stayed in Kufstein, a small Tyrolean town, before two nights in Vienna.. again each in a new hotel. I walked all across town, as I have done on my other three visits to Vienna.

Work through the medium of email was carrying on in the background and this particular week was one of highs and lows. Two situations in particular were ongoing and it happened that both resolved themselves, to my immense satisfaction, on my Viennese day. I remember that evening in particular and the feeling of being emboldened to go for the strudel and custard.

I knew the shape of my trip in advance, as in the list of towns, even hotels, that I would stay in. I did not know which images would pass through my mind during the trip, the shape and colour of the hills, the viability of the trail I was investigating, the weather, the look and feel of those trains that were new to me, the qualities of the hotels all of which were new to me too, and those new streets and restaurants that I would choose. More often than not, my work trips result in at least one moment of total surprise – running for a bus in a remote valley, for example – that give me a jolt and a feeling of exhilaration as I take it all in.

What is it about this trip that I am enjoying so much? It’s the same element that is essential to all trips, to all years, months and ideally weeks of my life as lived when free to travel: the element of not knowing what comes next. Humans live on earth and find a mixture of, on one hand, security and comfort at home, and on the other hand adventure and enterprise at large. Some of us lean towards home and some of us need more adventure than others.

“Stay outside. Travel as much as possible.” This edict would cause great distress, and hasn’t the opposite had the same effect?

Life is fine-tuned

Eastcastle Street in Fitzrovia, London, that patch bounded by Oxford Street (East of Oxford Circus) and Tottenham Court Road. It is the central London bustle of people’s dreams. It could be Soho to the South East or it could be parts of Clerkenwell, Mayfair or Bloomsbury. A restaurant, a sandwich shop, a gallery, a pub, a workplace whose purpose is hard to fathom on first glance. There is always a purpose; it’s just that people and businesses are so inventive that there are so many purposes to them, and that the casual observer cannot re-invent everything that has been invented by so many people.

It’s lunchtime. On the street, workers in shirt sleeves – this is not a particularly formal part of central London, as it goes – rush for lunch. Who knows what they are all doing? Above the shops and offices at street level are brick buildings finished with stone, all different as is the London style, a fabulous creation borne not of one person’s vision but of the sum of a million people’s endeavours in entirely separate directions.

One office catches my eye, perhaps because it looks like a supercharged version of the office I worked in during my first real job. It would be the office chosen to show a perfect working life in a film: London or New York, busy, colourful, purposeful, cool. Certainly white desks, certainly phones alive with quick commerce.

To a substantial proportion of workers, this is the world of work. I suspect that most workers in that office that I saw, absolutely love it and regard it as a large and flattering part of their being.

Some Fridays, some workers here will plan ahead and bring to work what they need for the weekend, and at 5pm or 6pm they will take the train home – as many will be in their 20s – or to a destination to meet friends. During the day, on Friday, they will finish a report to a deadlines, meet someone for lunch, spend an allotted amount of time looking ahead in a more investigative style, take calls, make calls and keep up their share of the office’s administration. It will be an exacting day.

The pace of the day fits the work of the firm.

Then having rushed for the train, made it through one of the London stations – not calm places at rush hour – and found a seat or a place to stand that is nonetheless definitely on the train as opposed to off, the mind feels jubilation, satisfaction and then rest.

Where is the jubilation, satisfaction and rest if we are working at home? These human emotions are crucial to us, in the way that all human emotions are crucial to us because they balance each other out. We can work hard if there is the prospect of jubilation, satisfaction and rest.