Saturday, 6 August 2011

Writing at the terminal

You may have read that the novelist Tony Parsons is currently employed as writer-in-residence at Heathrow Airport, following the successful residency of Alain de Botton a couple of years ago. There is a piece in today’s Guardian suggesting that this scheme for installing writers in everyday spaces could be rolled out nationally, starting with J.K. Rowling in the endangered Preston Bus Station ( I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of people remaining sedentary in places of transit, and my book On Roads included several of these characters, including the couple who lived for 22 years, on and off, in a Travelodge overlooking the A1. John Wain foresaw all of this in his unjustly neglected novel The Smaller Sky, which is about a middle-aged scientist, Arthur Geary, who decides to live his whole life underneath the glass canopy of Paddington Station, where he finds solace and ‘perfect anonymity’.

In his recent documentary series, All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace, Adam Curtis tells the story of Bill Hamilton, a brilliant but eccentric evolutionary biologist who thought that all human behaviour could be explained genetically. As Curtis explained it, Hamilton would sit for hours on the platforms of Waterloo Station, looking at the commuters, trying to figure out the secrets of human behaviour as an entomologist might examine the movements of ants. I think Curtis meant to suggest this was how deranged Hamilton had become, a judgment which, as a student of the everyday, I naturally flinched at. Whether or not people behave like ants, I am sure you could discover a lot from spending time in a commuter station and watching closely the patterns of lovers kissing and parting, and people dashing for the train or anxiously peering at the annunciator boards or just looking for the toilets.

According to Hamilton’s entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, the truth may be more prosaic. Hamilton was not looking for the secrets of life but for somewhere to work. He ‘found it difficult to interest his fellow biologists in his work, and to get it published. He had failed to interest any potential PhD supervisors in the basic problem. They seem to have feared that it had something to do with eugenics. He did the work alone—in libraries, in his bed-sitting room, even on the platform of Waterloo railway station. He had no desk in a university department.’

Hamilton later wrote of his time at University College London: ‘I never had a desk there nor was ever invited to give any presentation to explain my work or my occasional presence to others. Most of the time I was extremely lonely. Sometimes I came to dislike my bed-sitting room so much that I would go to Waterloo Station, where I continued reading or trying to write out a [mathematical] model sitting on the benches among waiting passengers in the main hall.’

I am a fan of Curtis, by my way, but my ‘leap in logic’ warning light usually comes on about halfway through his brilliant documentaries, which I think of as works of art rather than argument … which is why I like them.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘We rarely get to prepare ourselves in meadows or on graveled walks; we do it on short notice in places without windows, hospital corridors, rooms like this lounge with its cracked plastic sofa and Cinzano ashtrays, where the cafe curtains cover blank concrete. In rooms like this, with so little time, we prepare our gestures, get them by heart so we can do them when we're frightened in the face of doom.’ - Thomas Harris's The Silence of the Lambs*

*Thanks to Marc Hudson for sending me this quote. His own rather excellent blog is worth a good look at