Small things. That’s what it’s all about. A look, a turn of the head, a word, a phrase, a nod, a smile. Either from a stranger or a friend – it doesn’t matter. If you take time to notice the detail, it will always give you pause; take you out of yourself. It might be someone else doing the noticing, like the man with the Jack Russell wearing a bow tie (yes, it was the dog wearing the bow tie, not the man – and it was Donegal Tweed, not Harris). Clearly he had been listening to one side of my phone call, which – given I was in a public place – I have no problem with. ‘Where do you think you’re going, with your south Antrim accent.’ It wasn’t a question, more of an approbation. ‘Come and talk to me. I have ordered you a cappuccino.’ I accepted the coffee (it came with two ginger snaps), thanked him, corrected the placement of my accent, and told him I had a prior arrangement. I agreed that if he was still there in an hour or so then I’d chat to him. Or it might be a snippet you overhear, a conversation to which you are peripheral. Like the child sitting in front of me on the train a few weeks back who said, ‘Granny, Granny, if you could chose three superpowers what would they be?’ Which was really his seven year-old way of telling his, for, before she could answer, he was off: ‘I would choose teleportation, infinite wisdom, and immortality for every member of our family.’ Good ones. Though it made me think of my granddad – who lived well into his nineties – leafing through old photographs of friends, all dead, listing the names and saying how much he missed them. There was a sliver of pride at having outlived them, but it was wafer thin – the missing by far eclipsed the pride. I wondered what age the boy on the train would be by the time he exchanged immortality for playing for Manchester City (is that a super-power?).
This week I went to Sam Burn’s Yard, near Prestonpans, with M. Depending upon what kind of junk aficionado you are, it might be your happy hunting ground or your worst nightmare. I had a foot in both camps. Stuffed with dilapidated detail, it is an intriguing clutter of all things abandoned, forgotten, lost – back-stories one can only ever guess at. The first thing to greet you is a caravan with bulging sides, like a double beer belly, with a buddleia growing through it. Then there are barns and lockups, lean-tos and glasshouses all stuffed with the scrapings of collapsed lives. Piled on the grass were half a dozen wrought iron Cromwell wheel light fittings – those huge ones that you might see in a hotel, with supporting chains where they’re fixed to the ceiling. They look like the inner metal loop of a cartwheel, bulbs in the shape of flames. Some still had gold tinsel wound around them. There were trestle tables filled with broken crockery from Portugal, perished bone handled fish knives, an ashtray with a picture of dunes and a greenway printed on it, with the words, Golf in Gullane, on the side. There was a plastic box brimming with action man dolls next to shelves of decorative teapots, those ones that are shaped like English country houses with thatch and rambling roses. Dust gatherers. A nightmare to wash. M. lifted the lid of one, in the shape of an elephant’s head. ‘I can’t help but look at these and think of the lady who collected them over the years. And they’ve all ended up here,’ she said, looking across to a chaise longue with the stuffing bursting out of it.
They say the devil is in the detail. The devil is out of fashion. But even were he not (and we’ll not get into that right now) I think the opposite. So by the detail you shall be saved: that’s my new take on it. Noticing things and paying attention to the detail lifts us out of the doldrums, whisks us away from obsessing over our latest crisis is and teleports us (superpower alert), if only for an instant, to the soft hold of a daydream. The minute we try to make sense of life through the sweep of huge news items we are lost. Focus in on the detail – the way the old man dabs his lips with a napkin after eating a scone, the tiny snail on the underside of the one of the chard leaves as you run it under the tap – and life is not solved, but you feel as if you might be getting somewhere.
The Red Wheelbarrow, by William Carlos Williams
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white