You had to be there

We were talking about travelling and a friend said that if he were to embark on another big trip, he wouldn’t pack a laptop, tablet, smartphone or a camera. Not even a notebook. We’d been in total agreement until that moment. What would be the point of travelling if you didn’t take artsy photos with an SLR? Or bore your friends and family with constant updates on your adventures? I wondered at the time. Not even a notebook…

Recently, I thought twice about taking my phone with me on an errand. Now I’m a father, that doesn’t happen as often as it used to. I remembered that conversation. What if someone needs to get hold of me? I thought. What if I see something cool and need to take a photo? To hell with it! One by one, I peeled my fingers from around the handset and left it on the counter looking like the sinister monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

As I was leaving town a spectacular double rainbow lit darkening clouds above the harbour. My first instinct was to take a photo, but I consoled myself in the knowledge that even a professional cameraman would struggle to capture what I could simply take in with my eyes and other senses. I decided to extend my walk to properly absorb the scene and ended up getting fairly well rained on. Really heading home now, two seals were playing in the waves. I watched them for ten minutes and understood what my friend had been talking about a little better.

How to live without a smartphone

Hire two boats for your friend’s stag do in Ibiza. Pilot them to a quiet cove. Watch your mates jump into the water and hastily take off your hat, sunglasses, shirt and shoes. Make sure your wallet isn’t in your pocket because you jumped into the pool with it yesterday and had to lay your Euros out on a table to dry overnight. Don’t think, live in the moment. Specifically, don’t think about sharks. Jump into the green Mediterranean, scene of Odysseus’ travails but with fewer deadly whirlpools now. Swim across to the shallow part of the cove where your friends are. Wonder what that weight is in your right pocket.

If you’ve followed these steps correctly, you should have magically converted your smartphone into an inert lump of plastic, metal and glass. Accept the laughter that is to come. Enjoy life off the grid for at least a few days, possibly longer. Ruminate on the freedom you now have in contrast to the freedom offered by ever present technology. Borrow your wife’s phone when you can.

 

How to read a city

The weekend brought me to Dublin for a wedding. I had some errands to run in the morning and went out to beat the streets. Inevitably, I found myself in a bookshop on the north side of the river where I picked up some titles in the Penguin Great Ideas series. For a tense moment, it looked as though the credit card transaction wouldn’t go through but, no, the shop assistant manipulated the card reader’s cable and I was spontaneously €35 poorer.

Temple Bar seems vibrant and a huge amount of fun with plenty of restaurants, pubs and bars and an entire street of musical instrument shops. However, it’s bookshops that serve my drug of choice. In the past I would have been scouting for record shops but they are now few and, for better or for worse, I just don’t buy music in a physical format these days. But what would be the point of a city without bookshops?

I started wondering about what would make a successful bookshop in the age of Amazon. There’s no way that even the biggest of chain stores can compete with the range of an internet retailer, so bookshops might as well be small and specialised with a lovingly selected stock. ‘Human capital’ is another advantage they have over internet giants: a bookseller performs a role that’s similar to a museum curator, surfacing interesting titles the customer might otherwise have missed. Staff should be free to engage with customers and find out what they’re looking for. A good bookseller won’t meekly ask ‘can I help you?’… more like ‘what have you been reading lately?’. This becomes easier if the shop has a guiding theme or philosophy. The third advantage bookshops have is the space itself. Occasional celebrity signings are fine, but it would be better to have regular events, readings, book clubs, creative writing sessions, talks etc. that bring in dedicated, returning customers. Finally, you could combine the shop with something more interesting than a coffee house, like a restaurant, bar or something unusual.

Things as they are

Last night I read a fascinating essay in the LA Review of Books on Donald Richie, an expatriate writer in Japan. I was struck in particular by this quote from Richie’s The Inland Sea:

The innocent does not look for reasons behind reasons. He, secure in the animal nature that all of us have and only half of us admit, is able to see that all reality is what the West finds merely ostensible reality. Reality is skin deep because there is only skin. The ostensible is the truth.

Whether he’s right or not, that’s a profound thought in our age of explanations. It reminded me of the scene in Zen in the Art of Archery where another expatriate, Eugen Herrigel is struggling to allow his bow to ‘shoot itself’. His vocation, philosophy, seems to be a major hindrance:

He had, so Mr. Komachiya told me later, tried to work through
a Japanese introduction to philosophy in order to find out how he
could help me from a side I already knew. But in the end he had
laid the book down with a cross face, remarking that he could
now understand that a person who interested himself in such
things would naturally find the art of archery uncommonly
difficult to learn.