The start of a shift towards some more confessional Muselings, this episode looks at control and responsibility, which, oddly, do not always coincide.
And here are some ways you can help refugees from your front room (article from September 2015 – some of it will now be out of date).
A transcript of this episode is below.
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Recently, two objects have turned up in my flat that suggest that someone may be gently… messing, let’s say, with my head. In June, from the safety of my couch, where I occasionally sit and read, right up at the far left-hand end, I spotted a piece of blue Duplo – which, for anyone who doesn’t know, is a kind of fat lego – sitting just underneath my piano. I took a photo of it and sent that off to a friend of mine who has children. Her children are, to my knowledge, the only children who’ve ever set foot in my flat. My message said: ‘I’ve just found this under the piano. Was it one of yours, do you think?’ And my friend wrote back: ‘Hmm, I don’t recognise that colour of Duplo. How intriguing, who could it belong to?!’ (interrobang).
In August, I was cleaning under the bath and I came across a small plastic fish that definitely hadn’t been there the last time I cleaned. I’m not going to tell you when the last time I cleaned was. This time, my message read: ‘Is this yours? Found under the bath.’ And my friend’s reply: ‘No, but I am intrigued by all the children’s toys you find in the flat! I wonder who has been planting them!’ (exclamation mark).
Now, I’m not accusing my friend of lying about this and I’m not accusing her children of smuggling things into my flat that she knows nothing about. Apart from anything else, they would need to be stealing them from other children and then bringing them round to bury under the furniture like squirrels. And that’s absurd.
But the point is this: I have arranged my life so that I don’t generally have to acknowledge quite how important the illusion of being in control is to my… let’s say health and happiness. I live alone and, although, as I look around at the gentle disorder of my flat, it might be easy for me to imagine that I’m a relaxed, even a chaotic sort of a person, it doesn’t take much to remind me that all the stuff I see around the place, no matter how apparently disordered, is where it is because I have put it there. The Duplo and the fish are just two examples of what it takes. A third might be that I had a friend staying recently who moved the dishcloth that I use for cleaning the kitchen surfaces from its place draped over the tap and put it on the windowsill. A displacement of 20 or 30 cm that took me at least as many seconds to process. I really did just stand there, looking at it and thinking: What is that doing there?
You see: this is real chaos. It’s just a hint of what would happen if I did live with somebody. Objects would appear where I hadn’t put them. Food that I hadn’t eaten would disappear. The dishwasher would be stacked incorrectly. And I don’t know how I would deal with that.
I’ve been trying to notice, recently, how often I try to control things without, as it were, letting myself know that that’s what I am trying to do. You see, I don’t like the idea of myself as somebody who relies on the illusion of being in control. But, the more I think about it, the clearer it becomes that that’s exactly what I am.
For example: The other day I was driving to Oxford and, at a moment when my side of the motorway was almost empty, I caught up with a car driving below the speed limit in the middle lane. I was in the left hand lane, driving more or less at the speed limit – as I have been doing ever since my speed awareness course at the end of August – and, rather than just sneak past – innertaking, as it were – I decided to drive in a wide sweep, overtaking by moving across the middle lane, over into the right hand lane and then back across, in front of the offending car, all the way back to the left hand lane to continue. Not because I was worried about breaking the rules – or not just because of that – but because, as I realised even while I was doing it, I wanted, very subtly and indirectly, to influence, by which I mean to try to control, the driver of that car. I do the same thing on tube platforms and tube trains, ostentatiously moving through the areas where the idiots gather and cause crowding – right by the doors – to places where I think those people should be spreading out to.
And, again, what’s interesting to me is not that I do this but the reason why I do this. Which can be summed up as: I’m being a dick. I want to control without seeming to want to control. Now, if I had one of those wireless microphone things and a job at London Underground it might be that I’d spend my time saying: You need to move and you need to move and if you don’t move I’m going to confiscate your oyster card, I’ve seen you here before, you always stand there… Sorry, I’m fantasising… where was I? Yes, I don’t have a job with London Underground so it’s not up to me to get people to stand in the right place. So I have to try to do it surreptitiously.
And why is all this so important to me? Well, I think the simple answer is that outside mirrors inside. And apologies, by the way, if this gets too confessional right now. Because, every now and then, I have dreams about pooing inappropriately. Publically, I mean. Or in a place or to a degree that will cause me huge embarrassment, usually because it can’t be cleaned up. It always makes me think of South Park’s Mr Hanky The Christmas Poo. And it’s pretty fucking Freudian, isn’t it? Clearly, I fear that my thoughts and feelings and desires and impulses, all of the shit that I have inside, is (or are) inappropriate, messy, embarrassing, to be hidden. And it’s difficult to hide thoughts, feelings, desires, impulses.
But you can practise and you can get pretty good at it. And then you start doing it all of the time. Without thinking about it. And that’s me. That’s my life. Or… some of my life.
Now, some of you might have noticed that I read these Muselings. You see, I feel the need to try and control how it is that I come across to you while you’re listening to them. I even put in pauses and I vary the rhythm to try and make them seem more alive. You know, to make it seem as though maybe I’m just speaking all this out of my head. Well, for those of you who were fooled, know this: It’s a fraud and a swindle. I mean, all of this, it’s exactly what I want to say but… it’s… it’s not really spontaneous. And I want to come across as spontaneous. Because that’s the best camouflage for somebody who’s addicted to control. Right? And you might say: So what are you actually camouflaging if you are telling us all of this? And I’m not really camouflaging anything. When it comes down to it, all I’m doing is trying to hide the fact that I’m not as good at talking into a microphone as I want to seem. I’m not as fluent. I’m not as proficient at putting thoughts together in a way that seems coherent. And none of that’s important.
But, as I say, control is a habit. And it’s a very difficult habit to break. And, the more I’ve been thinking about this, the more I’ve realised that I’m hardly the only person doing this. Take a look at the way that evolution is often described, for example, when people talk about why organisms or genes would want a particular modification or what advantage they think they’re going to get from it. Or… recently, on a science podcast, I heard someone talking about how the sun smashes together hydrogen atoms to make helium. Or… well, it only takes a very quick Google search to find articles on what banks and governments can do to control things like employment and inflation. And all of this is imagery but I think it’s interesting to notice that all of this is the language of control. It’s the language of agency and agency is so important to so many of us, isn’t it? Or, at any rate, the illusion of agency. And it seems to me very clear that, even those of us who are not believers in any kind of potent deity – or… or perhaps especially us – perhaps… perhaps we find it particularly hard to come to terms with the lack of any kind of actual control that exists at almost any level in the world.
But here’s a kind of counter-example to finish: Coming home from France recently – at the beginning of September 2015, to be precise – I was delayed on the Eurostar between Lille and Calais. A month or so earlier the words ‘migrant activity’ might have been used; on this occasion, we were told that there were unauthorised people on or near the tracks. At one point, it seemed as though a train ahead of us might have hit one of these people, which turned out not to have been the case. At no point was the word ‘refugee’ used. And this isn’t the important part of the story. I mention it because it now forms so much the background hum of our lives, those of us who live in rich countries, this collective need to control, I would almost say to constantly control, who is and who is not to be considered an unacceptable strain on our national resources. But the point is that I arrived at St Pancras at about the same time as the last Piccadilly line train was due to leave so I booked a car from my local taxi company to take me home and when we got to my house, in West London, I asked the driver how much I owed him. And he said: “How much would you like to give me? What do you normally pay?” I said I didn’t remember what I normally paid because it had been so long since I last took a cab home from St Pancras. And he said: “Well, it’s up to you. What do you want to give me?”
And… so… I gave him £20, which may or may not have been fair. But, even as I did it, I was saying: “Shall I give you £20?”
And I realised afterwards: That’s because this is a kind of control that makes me extremely uncomfortable. It’s called responsibility. This guy was asking me to take responsibility for this transaction that is usually, in a way, out of my hands. He was asking me to say: ‘This is what I’ve decided to do. This is how much I think this journey is worth.’ And, whether or not we choose to be aware of it, this is a level of control over the world, over our environment, over ourselves that we all have all of the time. And, at the risk of sounding trite, and of getting political, I think that a lot of us could probably do with getting better at accepting and dealing with that. I mean: I could. And, maybe, if I started to be able to accept and deal with the extent to which I can take responsibility for my decisions and actions, I would start to be able to imagine being able to deal with the very basic threat to my control over my environment that would come with, say, another person coming to live in my flat full time.
I mean, that’s a very far off possibility. It’s you might call a hypothetical. I’m just trying to get ready for that… In case it ever does happen…
Anyway. That’s… that’s… basically what I wanted to say today.
Thanks for listening to what is the 4th Museling. You can find out more about the podcast at muselings.uk. My name is Charles Adrian and you can find me on Twitter – mostly retweeting, which is a way of abdicating responsibility for thoughts and opinions – as @charldrian. Right. Bye.
This web page and its contents © Charles Adrian Gillott October 2020