My dear friends
The new year is a week or so old, and already I can feel a difference in the air, some new thrumming electrical pulse through the aether … hm? what’s that you say? It’s not the new year? How wrong you are! Some several months ago, in the depths of the lockdown doldrums and the unending midday gloom of the long, steep-sided vale of lockdown, my dear friend Tanya told me something that someone had told her: “Forget January to December,” she said. “2020 runs from March to March”.
I seized on this like a hungry dog on a bag of bones that has been dressed up like a cat. Yes, I thought! 2020 runs from March to March! That will be the lost year: I’ll concede that year of my life to the force majeure of Covid, and after that I’m taking it back again.
That is the power of stories: stories don’t have to be true, they just have to make a certain sort of persuasive sense, offer us a model to live by and live for, and we’ll do the rest. Give me a story I can use, and I’ll make it true.
And so it is – March has brought a change. You can feel the world stretching and stirring again – obviously not everywhere and not for everyone, but then nothing ever happens everywhere or for everyone. I refuse to be only as hopeful or as happy as the least hopeful and happy people, so I’m here to tell you there’s a new energy afoot, and I can feel it, and I hope you can too.
There are good signs: America and the UK are vaccinating at rates bewildering to a world grown more accustomed to their blundering and incompetence (one third of UK adults already vaccinated! USA vaccinating more than half a percent of their population every day!) and even Europe, despite doing their level best in recent months to snatch the moral low-ground on Brexit, and despite a whole-hearted commitment to trying to prove every Brexiteer’s dark slanders about EU red-tape and bureaucratic inefficiency correct when it comes to the vaccination roll-out, finally seems to be stirring itself to get needles into arms. Those weirdos in Australia and New Zealand, on the other hand, seem to be pursuing an alternative strategy of locking themselves down forever and letting no one in and no one out, which as far as I can see is a win-win situation for the rest of us. And we here in South Africa? Well, we need a miracle, but then we always do, and miracles have happened before.
Anyway, I’ve been allowing myself to dream about movement again, not just purposeful, horizon-driven movement, but the even more truly delightful movement of being boundlessly at large and available to be plucked and pulled by the invisible currents of the world, and that has reminded me of something I like to do when I come to a new city, or even a familiar one. Now, this is going to sound a little weird at first, and perhaps even after I’ve explained it. You may in fact think I’m a bit of creep, but we’re friends now, so that’s a chance I must take. Here’s what I do in big cities: I follow people.
The first person I followed was in Paris. Now, many people visit Paris but Paris isn’t a place to visit – the joy of Paris is in living there, however briefly: inhabiting your neighbourhood, finding your own ways and places. A year or so ago I was staying on the Rue Daguerre and one day I was looking at the people walking by, some strolling and flaneuring, others click-clicking with purpose, and I took to wondering what they were up to, where he has just come from, where she is going. There was an old man with a cane, idling down the Boulevard Edgar Quinet, past Cemetery Montparnasse. He had silver hair and baggy trousers and moved at leisurely yet with intention, and I suddenly found myself falling in behind him.
Life becomes instantly more interesting when you’re following someone. Randomness is injected, but randomness with a hidden pattern – you don’t know where you’re going, but he does, as he crosses the road here, greets that old lady there, pokes his cane at a dog in a window with the air of one renewing an ancient combat. What he is doing feels like nothing to him, but to you it is invested with mystery and revelation. Is it intrusive to follow a stranger? Maybe, but I don’t see it that way. I see it as a mutual exchange of gifts. As he leads me into the world, down Paris streets I’d otherwise have no reason to see, gifting me with an adventure, with new eyes and a specific voyage I’d never otherwise take, he is like Rodriguez in the first half of Searching for Sugarman: he is no longer an ordinary man, living his normal life; in an alternate reality he is the hero of the story for at least one passionately attentive South African.
That first old Frenchman didn’t take me on much of an odyssey – he went a couple of blocks to the Monoprix for some tomatoes – but I was hooked.
I subsequently discovered Christopher Nolan’s first feature film, Following, in which the protagonist, a writer with writer’s block, follows people around London. He has some fundamental rules: 1) never let them know you’re following them 2) never follow the same person twice 3) any follow stops at the front door 4) never intersect with the life of the person you’re following.
Those are my rules too, but I have to say there is a part of me that longs for the person I’m following to fall into a river, or be mugged, or have a piano falling towards them from a third-floor window, so that I can cheerfully breach law 4, leaping into action to save their life or wallet like some divinely appointed guardian angel.
But enough of my overly revealing action-hero daydreams. I’ve had many delightful follows: I stepped on the metro at Denfert-Rochereau and decided on a whim to follow a black guy in his mid-30s, wearing a red checked shirt and chewing a match. We rattled down the 4 line towards Clignancourt, and got out at Chateau D’Eau, but then he asked directions from some guy working on the street, did a U-turn and went back into the metro station.
I only had a single-use ticket and he breezed through the turnstiles with a week-pass, so I lost him and had to follow a young Arab guy with a shaved head back up the stairs and down Avenue Strasbourg into the 10th arrondisement. I had never been that far into the 10th before. On Faubourg St-Denis he bought two chops at a boucherie near the arch, and carried them wrapped in brown paper down an alley and into the Cour de Petites Ecuries. He stopped to offer some advice to a guy smoking a hookah and playing dominos, then disappeared up a flight of stairs into the apartment. Next door was a small establishment called the Tuk-Tuk bar, where I had a schwarma and a pint of beer. It was the cheapest beer I had in Paris.
I once followed a man in Moscow down icy dark streets, feeling like a character in a John le Carre novel. When he boarded a tram heading east, I lost my nerve: the Russians are good at spotting a tail: they’ve been surveilled all their lives. What if it was trap? What if he was leading me to Siberia? I followed a promising couple in Rome, but when they started arguing and he sat down on the sidewalk and refused to go any further I realised they were tourists, because that’s what always happens with me in Rome too. I never follow women, unless Jo is with me. She is an even more enthusiastic follower than I am. Her eyes sparkle with the thrill of the chase. Once I even heard her mutter under her breath: “The game is afoot!”
Someone asked me once, “How would you like it if you were followed?” Following someone means reaching into the blurring mass of a crowd and turning them into an individual, making them real and whole and dimensional. Making them matter, without ever imposing on them. How would I like to be followed? I would love to be followed.
So, yes, I’m looking forward to returning to a life of chance and serendipity, of bump-ins and crossed paths and coincidences. I think that’s what’s most worn me down this last year – it’s not that the big things are suddenly uncertain and unknowable (they’ve always been unknowable – it’s just that now we can’t avoid knowing that they’re unknowable). No, it’s rather that the small things, the tiny, trivial, life-giving details of our days have become too predictable. I want to be surprised again.
Until then, I’ll be running down the days fretfully until my birthday, wringing the last pleasures from this summer, joyfully awaiting the morning mists and soft damp evenings and great green seas of autumn and winter. Hopefully next time we speak, I’ll have some news to share with you. This is going to be a good year – you mark my words.
Much love to you