Saturday, April 06, 2013

It Tied The Room Together

I was once mistaken for a tramp. This is the one recollection which never fails to crease up my kids. I had better explain. There used to be a ‘sleeper’ service on the Liverpool-to-London train. (It was discontinued twenty years ago, just prior to the botched British Rail privatization.) In my early twenties, I boarded it for the first and only time, arriving at the capital utterly dishevelled at six in the morning. I had arranged to meet a cousin at a small, first-floor breakfast café – now also long gone – on Bridge Street, directly opposite Big Ben.

First to arrive, and with the café not due to open until seven, I ambled round the corner to a virtually-deserted Victoria Embankment, crashed full-length on a wooden bench and watched the midsummer sun rise above the South Bank of the River Thames (Figure 60.1). Lying peacefully there, feet up, tired head resting on a small rucksack, the world stood still – until the police arrived and told me to ‘move on’. I was astounded that they had assumed I was some sort of vagrant, but thought better of correcting them. Had I responded by insisting that I was a university graduate who happened to have a professional occupation and the Freedom of the City, they might have thought I was delusional as well as homeless.

Figure 60.1: I think this bench was the one.

Copyright © 2013 Nigel Chadwick

It might seem amusing now, but, as my cousin pointed out (once he had stopped laughing), I was doing nothing unlawful and inconveniencing no one. ‘People can be very judgemental about individuality,’ he said. ‘Even friends can, which makes it worse.’ He believed that being a slave to “the done thing” stifled originality and spontaneity. His live-and-let-live attitude impresses me as much now as it did then.

Several years after that very brief brush with the law, I watched for the first time what has become one of my favourite films: The Big Lebowski (1998), a Coen brothers production, starring Jeff Bridges, Steve Buscemi and John Goodman. Although reviewed with only modest praise on release, it has since become a cult classic. Jeff Bridges, in arguably his most iconic role, plays ‘The Dude’, an unkempt slacker who spends his spare time at the local bowling alley, while putting the world to rights with his mismatched buddies (Figure 60.2). Superficially, ‘His Dudeship’ is an out-and-out loser; and yet, despite becoming unwittingly embroiled in someone else’s crimes, he stumbles through life along the path of least resistance, harbouring no ill will towards anyone. He is a gentle rebel, placidly refusing to conform to society’s prescription.

Figure 60.2: A typical scene from ‘The Big Lebowski’

Copyright © 2013 Cable News Network 

It is, ultimately, a film about the endurance of against-the-odds friendship, made possible by contrived surroundings. The three oddballs, whose home lives remain obscure, are friends loyal and true, thanks to the bowling facility which provides them with sanctuary from a world moving too quickly, unpredictably and unjustly for their taste. It gives them the means to escape from their lives, their past and even parts of themselves. It is both poignant and incredibly funny.

In the post-Internet age, cyber-friendships have become pandemic. This has made many a commentator rage against the eschewing of direct human contact. There is, however, a powerful upside. Some friendships can work only anonymously in a selective environment. I inhabit one myself, for short periods of time. Throughout the past year or so, I have made regular contributions to a forum belonging to a major European newsagency. After seeing the same names – mine is ‘escritor’ – crop up repeatedly, we came to appreciate and anticipate each other’s views and insights. One, a financier from Florida, predicted the Cyprus ‘bank raid’ two months before it happened. Others are masters of erudition on a broad range of subjects, including those in which I myself am well qualified.

Of course, we know nothing for certain of each other’s circumstances. Is ‘jj’ really American? Does ‘harry_m’ actually work in Finland? Does ‘elliemaysgrandad’ have a granddaughter called Ellie May? Is ‘Shakespeare’ a camp quarter-wit trying to be Devil’s Advocate, or simply playing a role? I cannot be sure, but this is immaterial. Anonymity could well be the most vital ingredient, as it precludes prejudice. We have all been happy to foster civility and friendship, behind a mask, at a distance, take it or leave it. This benign masquerading is reminiscent of a Venetian ball, where partial disguise enables even polar opposites to respect and like each other. If we were compelled to give away more of ourselves, perhaps we would not click. It is surely no coincidence that so-called geeks and misfits come alive in front of a computer, where physical appearances, social backgrounds and subtle visual cues are removed from the discourse and, instead, the simplicity of the written word rules supreme.

Last week, our news website announced that its online readers will, as of April 1st, be limited to viewing just a few free articles per month. None of us is willing to cough up subscription fees, so, unless we can find a collective ‘home’ elsewhere, this is, sadly, the end.

I suppose what I am trying to nail down is that friendship without judgement is a worthy ideal, and I shall miss my geeky counterparts in their Venetian masks down at the online bowling alley. Amicitiae nostrae memoriam spero sempiternam fore.

Still, as the Dude might say: ‘Life goes on, man.’

Indeed it does. Long live the free-spirited – however they might present themselves to the world.

P.S. Having just completed this article, I have realized that perhaps it lacks a little coherence and symmetry. The themes need to be tied together more neatly. OK, how about this: one of the most original and free-spirited European architects of all time was the Catalan genius Antoni Gaudí (1852-1926). He died after being hit by a tram on Barcelona’s Gran Via. It is now widely believed that his life could have been saved. On admittance to the Santa Creu Hospital, he was seen to be dressed shabbily and without ID papers. No emergency treatment was afforded to him. The reason: those in authority thought he was a tramp. It happens to the best of us. Will that do?

Copyright © 2013 Paul Spradbery

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