Hurry Up And Enjoy Yourself: the inexplicable drive to make everyone the same.

The unit comprising parents and their kids, known also (rather aptly I think) as the “nuclear family”, has many advantages. Autonomy is not to be sneezed at, and a bit of distance from extended family can be constructive. But there are also a few downsides. A committee of two adults seems rather small to be making big decisions about people too young to contest them, so there’s often a feeling of colossal responsibility. Then there is the childcare issue. It’s all on you. Unless, of course, you have the finance to pay someone else to do it. Enter The Nursery.

The Nursery is filled with hard working, well meaning and compassionate staff who do an amazing job of making children feel happy and comfortable, all whilst being paid well under the odds for their work. The Nursery is also the first step on the school system ladder, the first time your child will be assessed as anything other than cute, hilarious or grumpy. His or her needs will be filed, behaviours analysed, and any problems will be identified and acted upon, by people with qualifications. You can tell them apart from the workers on “the floor”: they have clipboards and badges.

They want to know how your child functions in a room full of screaming kids of a similar age. Is your child “taking part”, “joining in”, able to “communicate their needs”? I have been in these rooms. I’ve had fifty three years to get over my fear of them. All that happened is that a childhood fear became an adult aversion. As a two year old, however, I only had one need I wanted to communicate: to get the f*** out of there.

I have older two kids, now teenagers: at pre-school, primary school and secondary school the conversation went like this, for both of them….

Teacher : “Oh they always have their head in a book”.

Me: “OK that’s great…I’m glad they enjoy that. I enjoy that too.”

Teacher: “…they are doing so well at school, good grades, helpful, a pleasure to teach.”

Me: “Ah great, I’m glad they are not causing you any trouble.”

Teacher: “The thing is, they don’t put their hand up in class, and that’s a bit of a worry.”

Me: “Is it?”

Teacher: “Yes, if they know the answer to a question they should say so. It builds confidence.”

Me: Shrugs (thinks: “for whom, the student or the teacher?”)

(Actually, the exchange never went like this. I would usually nod and say “ah OK” and pretend to understand, perhaps giving a couple of suitably pitying looks – you know the type, that slick professional faux-empathic face that seems to crumple in the middle from the sheer force of caring…Then when we got out of the meeting I’d say to my daughter or son: “Ah OK, same old shit, I’m glad you’re enjoying school, I did too. And I never put my hand up either. And I don’t now. It’s all fine, do what you’re doing, it seems to be working.”)

This was fifteen years ago. My youngest son is two and a half. and we are back here again. He is….. Two and a half. If, by a certain date, he has not achieved targets of easy going confidence and loudmouthery, then, we are told, the “investigation as to why he is socially anxious needs to go a little deeper.”

Social anxiety, we are told, is not the same as introversion. Introverts don’t like being around large groups of people. Socially anxious people fear it. I am not a scientist, but I’m not sure at two years old you can separate these two categories. (Teacher: “Are you afraid of all these people?” Small child: Turns away and points to an empty corner of the room). I don’t like the “correctional” overtones of this approach, almost like taking your young son out to do manual work to “man him up”. But I can’t say I blame the messengers in this case. They have a job to do. But they are also answerable to a system of what I shall call “Extrovertiarchy” because I like to make up words. Even the boxes they have to tick seem somehow to be part of an extrovert world, a simple yes or no, an answer at face value without nuance. Where, for example, is the testing environment where a child is left alone with one box of lego for half an hour? How did they do? Did they simply throw it around the room until somebody came to play with them, or did they build a multi-storey car park with motorised gates and an integrated miniature fare paying system?

Here’s a handy guide (one of many) to what constitutes introversion. Jonathan Rauch’s observation on extroverts is particularly pointed:

“Extroverts have little or no grasp of introversion,” Rauch suggests. “They assume that company, especially their own, is always welcome. They cannot imagine why someone would need to be alone; indeed, they often take umbrage at the suggestion. As often as I have tried to explain the matter to extroverts, I have never sensed that any of them really understood.”

Taking “umbrage” at the need to be alone is the privilege of those who seek to asses our children. The list of traits found in introversion are, it seems, cardinal sins when you are in the schooling system, and also will mark you out as potentially “strange” as an adult. Of course, the usual list of “famous” people who were introverts is supposed to make us all feel better, the idea that you can “channel” your weirdness into genius. It’s a good reason not to try and stop our children developing into the perfectly happy introverts they are destined to become. But it’s not enough to only allow visionaries the privilege of their own company, the space to de-compress. There’s a kind of moral compass at work that says “normal” is “extrovert”. A normal person can sit happily whilst two or more people try and ask you different questions simultaneously, or while a speech therapist with a voice like a mouse with a jet of compressed air up its arse tries to coax out your underlying self confidence….”Look, it’s a dinosaur! A din-o-saur….squeak squeak”.

I love my son’s nursery, but you can’t help feeling they are victims too, trying to achieve the impossible by converting everyone to a way of seeing the world that is hard wired into us way before they get there.

Extroversion rules. It is a marker of well adjustment and good mental health. Big crowds of shouting strangers are a fact of life, and one that occurs with alarming regularity. Social media is full of bug eyed, self promoting lunatics and influencers who manage to similarly shouty with only one person as a prop. These paragons of self assuredness are everywhere. Introverts don’t like them, but we are a minority, and that’s how we like it. You need a system to kick against. Please don’t fix anything or we’d have nothing to shy away from. As a fashionable minority, we are where we want to be, tucked away under what passes for reality.

Love Letters

When I was about ten, I pulled a poster down from my wall, wrote “I Love Sally” on the back, and put it back. Nobody had known my guilty secret, and now, following this confession, I knew it. It was real. Signed, sealed and, until now, never delivered.

Pen on paper, feeling the contour of the lines, the resistance of the paper against the felt tip, you have to push the pen, gently ease the words into existence. It was real, real but protected by a photograph of the Chelsea squad circa 1970 that originally belonged to my dad. A firewall for the old century.

Perhaps I wanted, one day, to be discovered, then someone else could spread the rumour, take over the administration of this devoutly wished-for union. And maybe Sally had her own scrawled secrets beneath the bedroom blu tack. I liked to think of our posters talking to each other, meeting in some kind of virtual union of unfulfilled actions. Safe, secure.

Either way, I am glad there were no home computers, let alone internet, available to me then. Printed words, like these here, carry a kind of authority for me learnt from childhood. Print meant books, newspapers, magazines. The effort of putting something into print meant that somebody somewhere meant what they said. You couldn’t have five pints in the pub, become melancholy and morose and publish an article for publication five minutes later. Even newspapers, working on a very fast turnover, required witnesses (editors) to filter the content and, in the meantime, you could sober up clutching your head thinking “Why did I write that?”

Now there is no hangover, but there is the rage and counter-rage of the internet. Momentary thoughts slip through our fingers into the public space, unedited but presented in the flawless fonts that pass for a measure of quality. You’d think twice about that passing comment if you’d had to chisel it into a stone tablet. Today’s Moses would likely have had another couple of hundred commandments saved as drafts in a separate folder.

Landlords often stipulate that no blu tack on the walls is allowed. I used to think it was to avoid damage to the inevitable magnolia paintwork. Now I know: it’s to force our secrets out into the real world. You cannot hide anywhere except, for now at least, in your mind.

I won’t be tagging Sally in this post. Her Facebook address is safely hidden under a firewall on the long since corrupted hard drive of my memory.

Men And The Swings.

We arrive, after a long slow walk, at the swings. It’s not too cold that you can’t enjoy yourself, but we both have hats on. There’s no one else around. I lift him into the swing and start pushing. I’ve got a couple of tricks. I push, then I run around the other side and push him from the back. After initially finding this distressing and thinking I’d disappeared forever, now he finds it funny. For a while at least.

I can see a buggy approaching. Another man with a beard, younger, gets his son out and puts him in the swing next to us. They both look quite cheerful. The kid is clad in something so thick he can barely move, but he’s happy. The visible part of his head is smiling.

They start pushing, but this guy has some moves. He turns around as the swing comes back towards him, resulting in him receiving a firm kick up the arse from his son, who erupts in exponentially increasing fits of laughter with every new punishing blow.

Lorenzo looks on, curious, brow furrowed. He’s still happier on the swing than on the ground, but I suspect he senses that he’s missing out here. I continue the running around schtick, we do some counting. But he’s seen something better, like a Mars bar nestled in fresh salad. Me and this guy haven’t spoken. He looks quite outgoing and friendly, but he perhaps senses a lack of those qualities in the person next to him. Our conversation consists of a kind of call and response of awkward silences, as if we expect the kids to introduce us. I hate parties.

Time passes. It’s probably too late now to suddenly talk, although the pressure to do so is increasing. (In my head, a graph – time on one axis, pressure on the other). At some point he says, louder than perhaps is necessary: “Shall we go on the slide now?” They leave, the adults manage a kind of exchange of glances with eyes raised and awkward smiles, Lorenzo points at the kid and says “Baby!!!”

The next day there’s no one around again. We seem to have found the sweet spot in the timetable. I lift him into the swing. Another dad approaches with his daughter. Out of the corner of my eye, I think he has a beard, and definitely a hat. He starts to push his daughter, who is quietly content with the situation.

The two swings have somehow become synchronised. I’ve established my rhythm now. I muster a big push, Lorenzo shoots backwards and, on his return, as I suddenly turn my back on him, he kicks me up the arse. I jump. Lorenzo laughs. We do it again. The higher I jump on impact, the more he likes it. The daughter points and makes noises. From my peripheral vision, I think the other guy is watching me.

On discourse and debate

When I was at school, aged 12 I guess, I was in a kind of “sponsored” fight. There was a bully named Dave. He was bigger than everyone else, like a scarecrow in a field of overgrown wheat. He was picky with his friends. He decided he didn’t like me because of the shoes. His way of bullying was not to beat me up, but to force me to beat up another kid, whose name was Geoffrey. Geoffrey was kind of small and wimpy, and a bit annoying, according to a Dave the school bully. I was told if I didn’t fight him I would be beaten up, and then the rest of my year group were told to get to the orchard at break time, where they could watch me beating this guy up. It was a fight, a real bout, and it was sponsored by Dave the school bully, who would have sold tickets if he’d had the brains to organise it.

We are familiar, I’m sure, with the concept of going down and staying down. They hit you, you go down, you don’t get up until everyone leaves. I was planning this in reverse, that I would throw a left hook (gentle, made to look heavy) and this kid would go down, my contractual obligation would be over and I could get on with practising Scott Joplin in my fucking lunch hour.

Anyway, I did it, and he surely caught the strange brand of apologetic panic in my face as I landed the blow. His glasses fell off. I was then required to get on top of him and give him a stagey pasting.

The next day Geoffrey comes in and he’s black and blue down one side of his face. I felt pretty bad. I wished I hadn’t done it. He was simply an annoying kid in the wrong place at the wrong time. The look in his eyes, straining through broken glasses at me. The look. The eyes. If I hadn’t seen these things, I might have forgotten about it, wiped it from the mind and moved on. I couldn’t.

For some reason this is all coming back to me today, and it’s because of Facebook. There are a good few pastings dished out there these days. A few pompous claims and pointed barbs. When was the last time anyone looked into the eyes of a human being whilst sticking the boot in against people and groups, good or bad. That look that reminds us we are all human, the flicker of common humanity, that feeling reminds me I am part of a larger group of things much like myself. When that is gone, we are just a loose fitting sack of opinions, upbringings and fixed term prejudices which we let off from time to time. There’s rarely any change to the status quo. When was your mind last changed online?

Don’t get me wrong, I thought all this was a godsend at first. I am quite a shy person and happy to retreat into a cave and hurl rocks out of its entrance at whoever was passing. Eye contact is a major project at the best of times. But I would rather be reminded of that fact for every second that goes by than get sucked any further in to this blank, blinkered, rabble-rousing trend any further.

Go to the pub and talk it over. We are all doing our best. Whatever you may think. Change your mind, or see a new opinion and keep yours anyway. But see it at least, whoever you are.

Vertigo At The British Museum

So much is free, but you can’t hold it, can’t touch it, you don’t own it. Well, “you can’t take it with you” as they say.  Why hold on to something?  But when you get a digital something, you have the ghost of it, the music, the book, the film; it’s free but it’s gone. You are holding on to air.

I went to the British Museum recently, and there it’s different; old school.  You can walk past things, you can, in theory, touch them (signs saying “please do not touch the exhibits” only encourage it.  I have never seen a sign saying “do not touch the MP3s”, because, well, you can’t).  Egyptian gods stare down the aisles and ages, Greek bodies are held in split-second frozen marble.  And under glass, ancient thoughts written down are too far back in time to find or feel.

This stuff is old.  Really old.  The feeling is strangely vertiginous, as if looking back is like looking down, and the further you look the higher up is the precipice from which that past is viewed.  Looking into the strange, ossified eyes of an Egyptian mask, it seems every smile has behind it a thousand others, and in front of it many more to come.  Years ago, and years yet to live.  It seems impossible that this has happened.  I catch my present day grimace’s reflection and find it lacking.

Recurring dreams of childhood dreams left me with a kind of “fear of infinity”, and a quick google has identified this as apeirophobia.  For a long word, this strikes me as being too short, abrupt almost; it should have within it an impossible cycle of repeats that can never end.  It should be spelt up a kind of Escher staircase, or possibly down a spiral one.  Apeirophobeirophobeirophobeir…o…….

Faces smile back at me, perfect and timeless.  We assume that to create something timeless is a good thing – yes, Hotel California, what a timeless classic etc.  For me, timelessness is a nightmare of arrested activity, a trapped movement, invisible mucus wrapped around me like a coiled snake.  Air into vacuum.  Michelangelo’s David will always be youthful and virile, a snapshot (or sculpture, the only thing they had in those days, terribly time consuming) perhaps taken before his later decline into obesity and alcoholism.  Like Instagram, these are models of ourselves we cannot match.

But then we arrive in the Japanese Galleries, and this is why I came. They have the lights low here, to try and halt the inevitable decay of the treasures within.  It’s never busy.  Silk scrolls curl, woodblock prints fade, everything is fragile, is broken, ceramic pots are wonky and endearing.  It is not timeless, because the effects of time, the aesthetic benefits of time, are seen here everywhere.  It is full of time.

An iPhone 6s, for example, is exterminated well before its natural demise to make way for an upgrade, maybe one of these new ones with a screen that goes past the edge of the handset (to where?).  We don’t get to see it decompose, it’s corners fraying and worn, signs of use making it more beautiful, more personal, lived in, like an old book or wrinkled face.  The Japanese call this wabi sabi, the acceptance of transience and imperfection, where an object only really reaches its full glory as it begins to lose its shine.   Beauty as process.  Dropping your phone on the pavement or down a toilet doesn’t count.  The internet can document the passing of time (it is mainly about the passing of time) and yet nothing ages…’s merely information, a shared thought trapped in purgatory between the mind and the world of real things.

Back in the Japanese galleries, my phone’s message notification disturbs the murky light.  Must make some time to get back to them, just need to find my bank details and address and phone number, I don’t like to keep people waiting.

Introverted Snobbery

Who is that person?  He’s on stage, with four other band members, who are a little more familiar to me, and he’s talking to the audience.  He’s a little balder on top than I remember, and also a little more confident.  I’m watching my band Brother Face, filmed at The Verdict in Brighton from a camera attached (presumably) to the venue’s ceiling, and this stranger is me.   If someone had been swinging from the chandeliers, this is how they might have seen the gig, perhaps in a brief and unlikely moment of stillness, whilst doubtless being distracted by whatever else they were doing up there.  We are huddled round the small stage like some kind of puppet show through a fish-eyed lens.  Still, I am also pleasantly surprised by his (my) outgoing and relaxed humour, especially since I recently discovered I am an introvert.  There I said it.  Out and proud.  Here is what to do if you meet one…

Wanting a fuller diagnosis of my terminal condition, I took the Myers Briggs personality test, which revealed that I am INTJ personality type.  I always wanted something after my name, pin that thing down, wear those letters like a BMus or a PhD.  To be an introvert, in this essentially extrovert world of celebrity and self publicity buoyed up with self confidence, is like being a kind of spoilsport, a misery guts, a killjoy, “cheer up, what’s wrong?” sort of person.  And introverts are typically predisposed to dwell on this, often taking personality tests or, on occasion, writing whole books to try and figure out what’s going on, which is what Susan Cain did.

With the recent publication of her study of introversion and its benefits, “Quiet”, this secret world has been laid bare, and it seems to have made the poor woman famous (all those book signings and seminars must have been like hell on earth).  After reading a couple of chapters, it turns out this last assumption is a myth; it’s not the socialising, it’s being accepted by those people you are with, gaining some kind of “permission” to engage with them.  This explains the popularity of social media amongst introverts, happy to blab on about how exciting things are in endless updates whilst retreating to a reassuring solitude in the “real” world.  So why am I happy to play the piano on stage, talk to an audience, but reluctant to ask someone in the street the way to the Post Office?

I think it is something to do with the instruments, the piano and the microphone.  Playing the piano, in comparison with the “out front” horns, is like a desk job.  I am often sat facing the wall (a familiar punishment for those of us who grew up in the olden days), either behind a high wooden box or a six foot table.  These boxes and tables, they make noises; I am mostly in control of the type of sound that comes out, and often not.  I use them to talk to other musicians on stage in a language in which we are all fluent, and conversations unfold in much the same way they do when normal people speak to each other.  There are agreements, fights, crossed wires and moments of telepathic empathy.  But often I am not looking at you, the audience, when this happens.  You are all looking at the back of my head.

This is a source of immense comfort to me.  I once played the clarinet on a gig and, whilst the lack of jazz technique was problematic, the fact I had nothing between myself and the audience was mortifying.  As for the microphone; it takes incoherent, shy, awkward mumbling and blows it up to the size of a public address.  You don’t have to project, to assert your entitlement to be speaking.  Like the piano, it gives you that entitlement, it is a barrier and a portal at the same time.  A bit like blogging really.  Chris Batchelor, the trumpeter in my band, often confuses  sound engineers when he insists on having a microphone in order to play quieter.  Projection has its own limitations; it’s not just “fuller”, it’s more insistent, there’s less grain to it.  Sometimes you have to explore the changes in sound that happen when instruments are quiet, or slow, or inward looking, when music does not project with the force of an orator’s roar but with the whisper of a softly spoken confidence.

Contrast with this the Post Office scenario – who am I to interrupt the day of a total stranger with what extroverts among you may regard as a simple request, possibly even an opportunity to engage in conversation?  He or she is not walking down this street in order that I might ask a question; my presence is an interruption which, as an introvert, I assume is unwelcome on their part.  But you, the audience, have by implication agreed to listen to whatever happens on the stage by being here, you have given us a vote of confidence.  Of course, once off the stage, the deal is off.  I’m back to my usual self, doing my best to be extrovert in a world that seems to demand it most of the time.

I hope this doesn’t sound like whining.

I remember having to transcribe (i.e translate recordings to musical notation) over thirty Bill Evans trio recordings for a book, and because my ear isn’t very accurate (or is it because I doubt my judgement?), I used software to help me out.  By using a computer to divide each track into manageable chunks, I could slowly shunt my way through each small section, listen to it over and over, and move one once I’d got it down.  On one particular track from the Village Vanguard sessions, one of the most listened to jazz albums in history, I looped the first few bars.  As I listened I heard, in addition to the exquisite unfolding of Evans’s music, an eerie howl that seemed to envelop the music.  When I listened to the track all the way through, without the loop, it had vanished.  I went back to looping the opening section; there it was again, like some angry Ghost of Analogue’s Past invading my computer.  The music was quite clearly haunted, even a devout sceptic (albeit an introverted sceptic) such as myself could not refute the evidence.  Clinking of wine glasses in the background, when looped, began as shambolic percussion, but the more I listened the more I could hear notes, and then I almost started to write them down as part of the transcript.  It was hard to tell where notes began and where sound ended.

We are unreliable witnesses to this music, and now that the Brother Face tour has finished, it’s time for me to listen over the live recordings and videos and see if any of it makes sense.  I’m hoping make some kind of album, but before I do that I need to hear it like it’s someone else’s music, not mine – to see it from the chandelier. In the meantime, perhaps I should adopt a more “extrovert” approach just to keep up; it is what we are required to do from time to time.

“Massively looking forward to this exciting new release with some of my favourite musicians bringing these amazing compositions to life.”


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