Wednesday, 14 November 2012

A would-be observant ghost

Here is something that happens to me a lot. I have to reintroduce myself to someone I have already met, not usually very long ago (the record is less than a week) because they have no recollection of having met me. Sometimes, because they seem mortified to have forgotten me and to make them feel better, I pretend they are right and we haven't met after all. I suppose this frequently occurring phenomenon means either that I have a peculiarly good memory, or that I am peculiarly unmemorable - or perhaps a bit of both.

Being invisible has its advantages for a writer on the mundane. Who better than to write about the generic, unnoticed areas of our lives than someone who is also generic and unnoticed? Denis Mitchell, the great documentary maker, would walk round the streets of Manchester on his own after midnight with a portable tape recorder for his 1954 radio series, People Talking, talking to the homeless, criminals and others on the margins of society. He always attributed his success to his nondescript appearance. According to his fellow producer Philip Donnellan, he said barely a word, ‘holding the mic with one hand and a ciggie with the other, encouraging people only with his look of battered and opaque world-weariness’. The oral historian Tony Parker, a similarly unassuming character, called himself 'a blackboard for people to write on'. For his 1994 book Townscape with Figures, the then septuagenarian Richard Hoggart simply ambled round his hometown of Farnham in Surrey, carefully observing the rituals of the railway platforms and supermarket tills. ‘Better to be an unknown, to float through town looking and listening, a would-be observant ghost’, he wrote.

Mass Observation's Tom Harrisson, who certainly wasn't unmemorable - Judith Heimann uses a quote from Henry V, 'The Most Offending Soul Alive', for the title of her biography of him - thought it was better to observe people unnoticed rather than talk to them, although he did not always follow his own advice.

For a student of the ordinary, being ordinary has its uses. Other than that, I would have to say that being invisible doesn't have a lot to recommend it. If I were you, I would try to be memorable instead.

Mundane quote for the day:

I spent my second quarter-century
Losing what I had learnt at university


And refusing to take in what had happened since.
Now I know none of the names in the public prints,


And am starting to give offence by forgetting faces
And swearing I've never been in certain places.


Philip Larkin, 'The Winter Palace'

1 comment:

  1. I can't remember who said this now: such is her memorability and my memory, but it was along the lines that a woman over forty goes unnoticed in this world. Does the same prevail for men? Does it matter as long as we remember who we are talking to just now?

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