In the Bubble of Anonymity

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I make my journey from A to B every day, rattling westwards on the Central line, switch for the mainline sliding out of Ealing Broadway like a silent snake, then get the bus into the depths of Southall. This is my route. I could do it with my eyes closed. I do it mechanically, without enjoyment, in a bubble of introspection. Early in the morning there is no desire to exchange words with anyone, except the inky sensationalisms of the Metro. After work, colleagues taking the same train are reluctant to talk to one another. This is the decompression chamber. We shed our personas and assume a state of detached anonymity. I keep my head down. I like my bubble.

But recently, it has been infiltrated by a stranger who would eventually also infiltrate my thoughts.

It was the boots I noticed first, because she was walking up the stairs at the station, just in front of me. All I saw were her feet and I thought, “Damn, those are cool boots.” Sturdy brown leather with big brass buckles, jeans stuffed in. Something I would wear (had I been able to justify another footwear purchase that winter). The boots caught my eye because you just didn’t see boots like that in Southall. There isn’t much room for fashion around here.

I saw them again the next morning, on the bus stop. I hadn’t been expecting that. The same boots, outside the same station, at exactly the same time as yesterday? This broke the rules of the London Anonymity Code. On the bus, I surreptitiously examined the wearer. A tall girl with black-rimmed glasses. andy blonde hair spilling out from under a quirky beret. It was a geek chic look that would go unnoticed in Islington or Soho, but was completely out of place in this neck of the woods.

Intrigue set in when she began cropping up at various points on my route: the tube, the train, the bus from the station and the bus back to the train station. Once,  I even saw her after work in the shopping centre near my house. I nearly bumped into her rounding a corner. It was then that I began to wonder whether she had noticed me too. We were, after all, quite similar. I began to consciously look for her and it gave me a warm feeling whenever I saw her. I desperately wondered what she was doing in Southall. I was surprised to feel a little lonely whenever we weren’t on the same train or bus.

Yet somehow the idea of speaking to her terrified me. Imagine if we struck up a conversation one day, then continued seeing each other on our shared route. We would be obligated to talk to each other. Of course, there was a chance we would get on like a house on fire, but it was equally likely that we would get stuck in the dreaded swamp of acquaintanceship: small talk, pleasantries. Shudder! The bubble would burst.

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The Lying Protagonist

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I’m a little irked by a book I bought recently, which I picked off the 2011 Booker longlist. It’s a first novel, by a female author, with a few evident rookie mistakes (the writer frequently gives too much away, not letting the reader do enough guessing, which takes a lot of joy out of the reading). I was prepared to overlook these because the jacket blurb promised “a novel that pulses with rhythm, texture, language, and a story that keeps you locked to its pages.” I so wanted to read a book that masterfully intertwined the sights, smells and sounds of Afro Caribbean Hackney with a unique story. But I realised very early on that there was a problem I just couldn’t ignore: I didn’t believe the characters. The protagonist, probably autobiographical, is there but not really there. She is the ghost of a protagonist who, halfway through the novel, says something that made me put the book down:

“The words tumbled out of my mouth involuntarily.

‘I love you.’

The movement of his hands slowed, almost to a stop.

‘You don’t know me.’

‘I know enough.’ ”

I cringed, not only because these words are SO melodramatic and SO cliche, but also because there was very little indication prior to this scene that the protagonist might, indeed, love the character she is speaking to. The words came too soon and too unexpectedly, fell flat and stayed there.

The book is lying on my floor, with the bookmark exactly halfway, and I am reluctant to finish it. I am reluctant to be inundated with any more lies. Because, despite her saying it, I don’t believe for a second that she loves him.

NB. What’s interesting is that although the book was longlisted for the Booker, it does not appear on the Orange Prize longlist. I wonder why.

Why Are We Losing the War on Punctuation?

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I was heartened to read Simon Kelner’s article in i this evening. My soul dies a little bit with every paper I mark and today I marked 25 essays with commas in the place of full stops. Reading that there are people out there fighting tooth and nail against the misuse of the apostrophe had a resuscitating effect.

What I want to know is, what are we doing wrong? At the end of every marking session I have a strong urge to throw my students’ work at their primary school teachers and demand to know why they didn’t teach them the rudiments of grammar. But that would be unfair. Why is literacy dropping like a crop in a plague?

Out of all the students I teach, only one – and an 11 year old, at that – uses commas in complex sentences and apostrophes to denote possession, not plurality. Tomorrow, when I hand them back their essays, I will give this student a prize.

La Vanille

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Chocolate or vanilla?  The question has always troubled me. I love chocolate. In fact, it’s a vice I can’t live without, but sometimes it can be a bit too much. Vanilla, on the other hand,  is  innocent, uncomplicated and understated. La Vanille cafe on ul. Krucza in Warsaw captures vanilla’s elusive character perfectly. The cafe is open at 8pm on a Sunday night, and on a crisp October night like tonight, the scented candles outside beckon seductively with their French-manicured fingers. Inside, white leather and black wood minimalism reigns. The contrast ensures that the atmosphere is not at all oppressive and saccharine. I’m not sure if the delicate vanilla aroma comes from the candles or the rows of perfect, white-iced cupcakes displayed on the bar. Flavours include tiramisu, apple & cranberry, carrot, toffee, orange and a mysterious “red velvet”. I order white chocolate and strawberry and an espresso and sit down. On the sofa next to me is a pile of French Vogues. I leaf through one as I wait for my coffee. It arrives in a light bone china cup, with a glass of water. I LOVE when coffee is served with water. How is it possible that most cafes omit this crucial detail? The cupcake is unexpectedly understated: the cake contains real fruit and the icing is fluffy and not as sugary as most cupcakes. Minimalism. Balance. Perfection. Another reason to love Warsaw. 10/10