I live about a ten minute walk from the university offices where I go at times, to work on my thesis. It is the same route I go down to get to church on Sundays and halfway along gets me to the bus stop from where I leave to every other gathering I regularly attend in the city. Needless to say, it has become familiar to me.
The corner shop to the left as I turn right, which I’ve visited on occasion to buy an emergency bottle of milk or shampoo. The pub on the right where people gather after work, which makes me wonder why they are here and not at home. On the odd occasion I could also be seen in this pub and perhaps it is for them too such an odd occasion, or perhaps it is because they are English and going to pubs is what they do. The fish and chips shop on the left which you only enter to place your order and then wait outside until it is ready because you don’t want to smell like fish and vinegar when you get home. Nearly every single time I go there I think of the Eastern European cook in The Beach who is fed-up with smelling like fish and requests soap – “something toxic, something industrial” – to wash with, and wonder whether the Romanian guys working in this shop feel like that at night when they come home. The Turkish place on the left which offers possibly the biggest, healthiest and tastiest plate of food for £5 in this part of London. It seems like a family business with grandma rolling out dough at the window looking into the street while the son and his wife, who appears to be the owners, work the floor with others who could be cousins or sisters of theirs. Another pub on the right as I turn left but this one always seems a bit over-crowded and not too cosy. An estate agent on the right as I also make a right-turn where a plaque on the left says “Vladimir Ilyich LENIN 1870-1924 Founder of the U.S.S.R. Lived here in 1908”. Although the individuals are no longer familiar from here on in, the characters certainly are.
Cyclists looking somewhat comical as they charge down the bike lanes in their bright yellow attire and focussed expressions on their faces. A foreigner (from a non-biking city) might be excused for momentarily mistaking it for an actual race peloton. As I go further along I pass by countless students making their way to and from classes. I see student society posters asking whether Marx was right and wonder how many of them admire “Vladimir Ilyich LENIN” who lived down the street in 1908. I do not think all of these characters are students; some look too old but may very well be lecturers or simply people walking past across the university ‘campuses’ for some other reason. Tourists maybe? I have never quite figured out which university is which, and which buildings form part of a university and which don’t. There is no obvious campus in the way that I am used to. I am reminded of the last words of the young English lady sitting next to me on the plane, coming back from a short holiday in Bali, after we landed at Heathrow: “So this is your first time to the UK, right? Yeah, you’ll see everyone’s miserable all the time … but you’ll love it”. I couldn’t quite make sense of it at the time but I might since have begun to understand what she meant. I am not quite sure whether I like London or not. Maybe I have adopted the love-hate relationship the English has with everything? (I just googled ‘love-hate’ to see how it is spelled and the first suggested search showed up as ‘love hate london’) Next up I pass the church on my right as I enter the centre of ‘student capital’, greeted by the friendly presence of the three-story book shop to the left and sign-board-Kitty friendly yet sternly reminding me and other passers-by: “Read More Books”. Across the book shop, in large letters in the windows of a university building I read the phrase, “Change the World”. Not ‘for good’ or ‘for the better’, just ‘change it’. It might be best to stick to Kitty’s advice? I take a final left and continue to the office where I will work on my paper, arguing for the good life, hoping that I myself change accordingly.
Leaving the office, on my way back, a C.S. Lewis quote pops into my head: “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal”. As I walk back, I look at every person I see around me, quoting Lewis and considering them in light of it. I experienced something fascinating. It felt somewhat like one of those cinematic portrayals in which time slows down and senses are heightened. I see beyond every character-projected image and become immune to the tempting invitation to perceive the person behind it through prejudice; I could see vulnerability and uncertainty. I imagined the back story which gave identity to each person as I pass by; not trying to imagine it but seeing it as I reflect on Lewis’ words. I now try to make this a habit as I walk the streets of London. The characters come to life. Objects are subjectified. Beings made for eternity, like me. They long for something other than merely ‘changing the world’.
This pic of my friend, Ivan, was on my room wall for many years with the shortened Lewis quote (above) written along the yellow line on the platform. [Sydney, Australia, 2008]
“There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously – no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption.”