Three Things: August 2018


With thanks to Paula of Book Jotter for hosting—new participants always welcome!

Reading: I’ve become slightly hooked on the TLS’s Twenty Questions segment, many of which are to be found online. The first half of each questionnaire focuses on serious questions about reading and writing; the second half is a slightly sillier rapid-fire round of either/or: George or T.S.? Beyonce or Bob Dylan? King Lear or A Midsummer Night’s Dream? There’s something simultaneously obnoxious (such performative culturedness!) and addictive about those questions; they’d be perfect for a pub night or a lazy dinner with friends as pretentious as oneself.

Looking: There’s a gallery on the Southbank, very near the Globe, which no one ever seems to go into, perhaps because it’s located directly behind a large pub. It’s called the Bankside Gallery and is the home of the Royal Watercolour Society. They have an off-the-wall summer exhibition, along with the Royal Society of Painter-Printmakers, where you can literally purchase the art off the wall and take it away with you. I went there to kill some time while my brother and his girlfriend did the Globe tour a few weeks ago. I didn’t buy anything, obviously – it’s affordable, for professionally made art, but it’s still more than I can swing – but particularly enjoyed prints of a sulky child on a sheep, and several by the artist John Bryce (especially this one).

Thinking: I had a strong disagreement/argument with my housemate’s friend in the pub the other day, which was nominally about a variety of things but which at its core, I think, was about what we owe to strangers. I come down on the side of “nothing, unless they fall down in front of you in the street”. She accused me of being afraid to leave my comfort zone and talk to people unlike myself; I countered that being addressed publicly by people I don’t know is, at worst, threatening, and at best, totally unsolicited and therefore annoying. (Unless it’s literally a two-sentence commiseration with the other person standing at the bus stop in the rain with you.) I still think I’m right (and also that this is perhaps partly a personality thing as well as a generational thing; I’m extremely happy on my own and have been known to avoid talking to my own mother/best friend), but the possibility that I’m a snowflake millennial bitch has been haunting me for a week. (And then I think but being socialized to believe that asserting your right to exist in public unbothered constitutes snowflake millennial bitchiness is yet another way in which the kyriarchy seeks to control you…)

25 thoughts on “Three Things: August 2018

  1. I’ve never previously come across Chris Salmon’s work but I particularly like his animals. I could just picture his Cat and Cream etching on my wall!

    Re. strangers: I’m HFA, so find it quite alarming when strangers suddenly commence long or involved conversations with me. I completely understand your viewpoint – especially as I seem to be one of those people who is regularly accosted by unknown individuals to be told their complete life histories. I’m obviously a wussy Gen Xite – but I’m fine with that. Give me my comfort zone any day! 🤣

    Anyhow, super Three Things…, Elle! 😃

    1. Chris Salmon is delightful! And YES – there’s something about being accosted, as you put it, that feels like such a violation of the social contract, especially the particular version of the social contract that governs life in cities, where there are millions of people living side by side…

  2. Re: “Thinking,” I wonder if it’s partly an introvert/extrovert thing, and partly a city/town & country thing. I imagine (and thinking back to my own days working in a library in London) that as soon as you leave the shop you’re ready to be in your own bubble on the train with your book, and would rather act as if other people didn’t exist. I’m the same. Whereas if you’re in a situation like mine and you don’t see people very often, you might be more likely to initiate conversations. Say I’m walking along the canal path into town: I’m more likely to smile at the people I pass who are on boats or walking dogs, and to think of some small talk to offer. Still, I am fundamentally an introvert, happier to stay enclosed in my own mind. I wish I was more outgoing and interested in other people; I’m sure I’ve missed out on some potentially rewarding connections over the years.

    1. I have no doubt it’s connected to introversion in my case, but more generally, I think that the amount of time anyone ought to be expected to spend paying close conversational attention to a stranger shouldn’t be more than a few sentences on either side. The person I was talking to seemed to think that an unwillingness to engage with literally anyone who attempted to engage with me was somehow discourteous or wrong, whereas I just don’t understand why anyone would think it was okay to start a full-on conversation with someone they don’t know(again, we’re excluding brief exchanges, smiles, good-mornings, etc., here. I actually quite like those.) But it makes me less likely to want to participate in brief exchanges, good-mornings, etc., if I can’t trust that the other person will leave it there. Which is why I tend to think of forced conversation, particularly in an enclosed space, as an actual violation, not just an inconvenience.

    2. Re: “Thinking”, What if we turn the tables. What if ‘You’ are the stranger? How would you want to be related to in that strange land.

      Sorry Eleanor – I’ve been lurking for a while to keep up with you. Much love, Astrid

      1. Hi!! Lurk away – but thanks for commenting on this. I think maybe there’s a distinction to be made here between the senses of “stranger” – I don’t mean “someone in a strange land” so much as “a person I have never previously met or spoken to and who doesn’t seem to have any relationship to me whatsoever”. (Though, honestly, even if a person is lonely in a strange land, I would suggest there are more constructive ways of handling that loneliness than accosting random people on the street. That’s what community centres and hobbies are FOR!)

        I think also that the conversations I’ve been having on this topic have skirted another issue of definition: in my own experience, “uninvited and unexpected conversation” frequently very quickly becomes “aggression and harassment”. So it turns into this vicious cycle whereby I avoid the former because it feels like an inevitable precursor to the latter. It’s not that I don’t want to have small, cheering connections with other humans – I had quite a nice brief chat with a couple on a walking trail near my house the other day; they were picking blackberries and offered some advice on how to get the good ones – it’s precisely that I would prefer those connections to *be* brief and cheerful, and so often they curdle into something much less nice.

        (Also – are you in Charlottesville in October? I’ll be home for a fortnight then and it would be lovely to get a coffee and catch up!)

  3. Like Rebecca, I’ve spent years working at home which has made me more of an introvert. Unike her, I tend not to initiate a conversation although I’ll happily respond if someone else does, particularly if it’s on a train and I can politely retreat into my book.

    1. It’s the possibility of *not* being able to retreat that I find really alarming, particularly because I’ve been repeatedly harassed by strangers who “want to talk” to me and don’t seem willing to accept that I don’t actually *owe* them a full conversation. When people can’t deal with conversational boundaries, it seems reasonable to expect that they won’t respect personal/physical boundaries either, so even if they’re not being overtly threatening to me in the moment, that kind of behaviour makes me brace for threat. Unfortunately it has happened so frequently that it makes me incredibly wary even of small, low-stakes interactions with strangers. (Interestingly, it’s happened more this summer than ever before in my almost three years of living in London; no idea why.) I wish this wasn’t the case, but over and over again, other people have demonstrated that they can’t be trusted to know what’s appropriate and what isn’t.

      1. This is a typically British reply but it may have increased this summer because of the weather. I’ve noticed that people have been much more likley to speak to me over the past few months too. Whatever the reason, I’m sorry it’s happening. Must be very unsettling.

      2. It wouldn’t be nearly so bad if they were all nice interactions, but recently there’ve been unpleasant incidents involving verbal attacks, invasion of personal space, being followed onto a bus near my house, and (a separate incident) being followed off of a bus while being questioned about where I worked. Unsettling is the word. Apparently in some American cities the murder rate goes up in the summer, so that’s a fun statistic to ponder.

      3. Ahh, thanks. I suspect there will be a downturn in the colder months, but for it to disappear entirely, I think dismantling the patriarchy is our best shot.

  4. Your experience does remind me of my time (12 years) living in New York City. When I arrived I was 26 and I think I felt ‘exactly’ the way you are describing. It would have been stupid not to be cautious and aware of the possible dangers. Finding the balance between isolation and engagement is a tricky thing. So perhaps this is not so much generational as locational? Big city vs Small town or village. The contrast between little C’ville and NYC was quite amazing in everyway.

    P.S. I will be in C’ville in October. I’m doing a little bit of traveling (10th to 15th) so hopefully our paths can cross.

    all of mine,


  5. I think I expect nothing much of strangers and don’t want them to expect anything of me. Although that often depends on my mood… But being female (although older!) I tend to be cautious anyway, and if anyone gets in my personal space I hate it. Having said that, when I took my mother to Edinburgh last year we seemed to be having conversations with every stranger we came across, which may just be the famed Scottish friendliness! 🙂

    1. Yeah, it feels different if you’re visiting a place and the inhabitants are chatty – that feels welcoming. It especially feels different if you’re not travelling alone.

  6. I’m sorry to hear about the street harassment/unwanted conversations. I hate this as well, especially as by natural inclination I’ll do anything to avoid talking to a stranger!

  7. I am definitely with you about not wishing to be accosted by strangers, in my case especially not on a train where I feel really trapped – book or not. However, I do think there is something in the town v country argument as well. A close friend of mine says I always walk in a very different way in the city to the way in which I walk in the country. In the city she says my very footsteps say “don’t even think about messing with me’.

  8. I might have to join in on this tag… I subscribe to the TLS, but hadn’t looked at the website! I will now, and shame we walked past the Bankside Gallery the other week, but my daughter finds many shop galleries intimidating when you’re just looking, so we didn’t go in – next time!

    I’m all for a quick pleasant chat with a stranger though. Although I’m an introvert, I find myself chatting with check-out ladies, waiting in queues at the bus stop etc more these days – but I wouldn’t intrude, unlike some of the aggressive experiences you describe. Love Cathy’s comment!

    1. “Quick” and “pleasant” are the watchwords. (Had another weird experience this evening near London Bridge, when a man stopped me to ask whether I thought his friend, standing nearby, could jump high enough to touch a particular window. It wasn’t aggressive but it did feel intrusive—who gives a shit?—so I did my best expressive shrug and said “Who can say?” and walked on. I could hear them repeating “Who can say?” at each other, behind me.)

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