New Eyes in Lockdown


Stories and epiphanies are all around us, even in our familiar lockdown neighbourhoods – we just need new ways to see the “ordinary”. Check out Saturday’s workshop

ONE lunchtime nearly 30 years ago at journalism school, our tutor handed each student a random photocopied page of the London A-Z. “You’re going to find and research two decent newspaper stories in this patch alone,” she instructed. “I want them written by the end of the afternoon.”

I can still remember how forensically narrow my focus was as I got off the bus less than an hour later in a nondescript high street somewhere in East London.

I mean “nondescript” only in the literal sense that I couldn’t describe that street to you, then or now. As a trainee newspaper reporter, I screened out the “ordinary” detail of shoppers, street architecture, weeds, schoolkids, litter – and scanned instead for the journalistic holy trinity of strangeness, celebrity or conflict.

I found conflict within two minutes, written in scratchy biro among the ads for cleaners and dog walkers in a newsagent window: “Halt toxic threat to our children!” I phoned the number underneath and was soon interviewing a local resident about asthma symptoms she believed were caused by printing chemicals in nearby Wapping.

It was a worthy story, delivered on time (along with another about a famous war reporter due to visit a local library – hey, celebrity and conflict!) and it later became my diploma dissertation, helping to tighten up environmental regulations in the industry I was entering.

ORDINARY EPIPHANIES

But three decades later, I’ve become much more interested in what I screened out that day – and how we so often miss the ordinary epiphanies that are right under our noses.

As Proust put it: “The only real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes” – and this has rarely seemed more relevant than in the midst of the Covid 19 restrictions.

What would it be like to reboot that A-Z exercise for our age of severely curtailed travel? In a new online workshop Travel Writing in Lockdown with my journo friend Jean West, we’re inviting participants to find out. Instead of a random torn-out grid of unknown streets, imagine you have to source a piece of writing from the territory lying no more than 5 minutes from your own front door.

It may sound improbably limited, but I once got an idea for an entire book this way. Adrift in Caledonia was born one day when I was walking along my local canal – previously just something I crossed on the way to work – and suddenly saw it afresh as the starting place for a 2500-mile odyssey around Scotland.

But forget about physical travel for a moment. What if there were clues to your inner journey – your life’s purpose – lying ready to be decoded in your neighbourhood like some existential treasure hunt?

URBAN VISION QUEST

In Shamanic societies, the whole landscape speaks. The Vision Quest is a Native American practice by which solitary spiritual seekers look deep into the natural world, expecting guidance in their life’s purpose through some sign or revelation, returning with “new eyes”. What if this could happen right here in our own lockdown landscape?

I’m reminded of another exercise I did 25 years after my journalistic A-Z dash. I was back in central London, this time studying not journalism but Process Oriented Psychology, popularly known as Processwork. “You’re going on a 10-minute vision quest,” instructed my tutor. “Take an unresolved question about your life, and go outside into onto the street. Keep your eyes open and your peripheral vision tuned, and see what flirts with you.”

Processwork holds that as humans that we are constantly privileging certain channels of information and marginalising others ( as I did in the A-Z exercise, seeking primarily written information and screening out the hubbub, sensory detail, atmosphere and even physical look of the street.)

Going outside into Russell Square quarter of a century later, I made a conscious effort to reverse this imbalance, while pondering my complicated life situation. I was leaving the course to get a flexible part-time job that would support us financially while we home-educated our young son for a time – something that felt overwhelming at that moment.

Hence my question was: how will I sustain myself mentally and physically in the coming year? I asked it silently as I walked meditatively along the pavement, trying to stay open to everything.

PERIPHERAL VISIONS

I noticed the tilt of a root-broken paving slab, a squashed gold-coloured cigarette packet, a spray of dandelion. What “flirted” with me was colour itself – the lime green of a portacabin, the blue of the sky framed between green leaves – and a piece of old bunting caught on railings.

I looked at it more closely, feeling a tingle of significance. It had just four triangular flags left on its broken string: green, brown, blue and bright orange. The meaning I chose to take from those mixed colours was stay grounded in nature and remember to play. It made me smile.

I took it home and kept it strung above my desk in the rich, challenging year that followed, and it encouraged me into my garden or kayak more than once. Not bad for a 10-minute stroll.

Was God/the universe speaking to me or just my subconscious? Was it truly an answer to my question, or just a bit of bunting? Who cares?

It may sound a bit woo-woo, but I’m actually in surprisingly mainstream company when it comes to unearthing aha-moments from ordinary places: think of Isaac Newton discovering gravity under his own apple tree, or Robert the Bruce and his spider.

Who knows what pioneering ideas are already being born in our curtailed Covid19 lives? Perhaps you’ve already had a significant nudge to your personal life from a realisation in lockdown? I’d love to hear what’s bubbling up from beneath the veil of the familiar.

Whether you prefer the forensic interest of a journalist, or a softened peripheral gaze of an urban shaman, why not take a stroll with new eyes and let’s see what flirts with us.

Online class: TRAVEL WRITING IN LOCKDOWNSaturday 23rd May – 2pm-6pm OR Thurs 25th June – 6pm-9.30pm


Posted on: 18 May 2020 in Adrift in Caledonia, General


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