Euan Ferguson: By midnight nothing had happened except desultory cold things, and I went out to look at the sky

I went and stood outside, at midnight, to wait for the storm. There had been high hopes at around tea-time. Why do I even bother to call it that any more? I only really drink tea at gunpoint and have never, ever, looked forward to going home for some, maybe with a cake making a mess. I would prefer to call it standing in town worrying about things undone time, waiting anxiously for early night, the homeward bustle of normal people, particularly those who have been waiting for me to do something; at a certain darkness of footfall it's too late and the undone things retreat, scamper off with their little tails and mewed threats, for a while.

But at six the sky looked wild. Burnt oranges, and purples, roiling like wet damask, hurrying in a very un-British way, and I thought: Excellent, exciting storm. By midnight nothing had happened except desultory cold things, and I went out to look at the sky, hurry it up. Barefoot and in nothing but jeans.

We will sooner leave home without our keys than our phones. When we pat our pockets on the way out, it's for the bulge not the jingle. (As for watches, forget it: when was the last time you saw someone look at their wrist, because that's obviously much harder than digging for ages in bag or pockets for handy phone-camera watch?) Anyway, I caught the door in time, just, after 10 minutes of rubbish mimsy British zephyrs - they weren't gusts, I've sneezed harder - made me a bit cold then sneakily tried to whisper my door shut because they knew the keys were inside. I gave a possibly overdramatic sob of thanks - I could really have done without much more self-inflicted nonsense in my life - and didn't sleep, because it wasn't stormy enough and I had really looked forward to curling up with the window wide and pretending I was on a boat, or possibly Thor.

And the next day, tired and getting a bit worried about myself, I cheered up. I read about that orchestra, London Symphony it was, whose bus had been caught in another French Festival of Strikes and which arrived in Dijon in the equivalent of jeans and bare feet. No luggage whatsoever. No dress clothes. One copy of Mahler's Seventh. Rather crucially, no instruments. They begged and borrowed, and went on with photocopies and violins from local schools. The borrowed tubas were the wrong kind, and they had to mentally transpose down a fourth as they played. They received, of course, a standing ovation. And I truly loved the tale, not just because of the entente-cordiale stuff, taciturn moustachioed Dijoniers running off to the attic, swarthy mustard spilling from their pockets, to dust off trombones last used to sound alarms at the time of the Resistance (which they all belonged to, of course). I loved it because of what it told me about the orchestra: 100-and-whatever souls who carried everything in their heads, for life, because they had learnt it that way. Not a bag, not a tux, not an iPod in sight: not a laptop or editing suite or plasma screen, nor a how-to guide, online or otherwise. Just an ability to read and play music, in their jeans, with strikingly unfamiliar instruments, and balance with the ear, and compensate with the fingers and the embouchure. They had it; they'll always have it; and it might even have made Mahler smile, the depressive old goat.

How many of the rest of us, caught out as I was literally and they figuratively, could wander off barefoot, in jeans, and successfully get through life with perhaps a bit of bread and wine and shelter would be nice, but essentially all the rest coming from talent in your head? No office, no infrastructure, no paraphernalia, no help. It must be nice, and had me thinking good thoughts until I found myself doing my town wander and saw, again, the rucksacks.

I probably mean saw for the first time, as in properly looked at, because I'd been thinking of people who could carry everything, for life, in their heads and then saw lots of people who couldn't even carry anything, for a day, in their hands. What's inside the bags? I don't just mean, any more, the Scandi-packers, looking in their guide books for ways to walk more annoyingly: it's everyone. Silly little rucksacks, when they actually have a home in this city and will be in it in half an hour. What's inside? Sandwiches? What, made out of heavy rolls of industrial linoleum? A duvet, in case they get a bit sleepy? All the clothes they have ever owned, just in case? I find myself tempted to stop one of the less obviously violent ones and ask. Follow them with a morbid fascination, then create much unwonted upset and anger; create my own shabby tiny piece of tragedy. Death in Little Venice.


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