Tag: Musings

The Hammersmith Stranger

The Hammersmith Stranger

Not too long ago I was in London for work, and by ‘work’ I mean playing some video games. Now, to be fair, it was a bit of a gruelling day.

Before the London trip I worked 8am until about 8pm, slept for a few hours, and was then awake from 11pm through the night. Covering a live stream out of Tokyo from 3am, I then had a 6.20am flight out of Edinburgh, made my way from Gatwick to London Victoria, and then from there to Hammersmith. Being in a crowded and loud space on so little sleep was both fun (because of the company and gaming) but tiring. I was most definitely rather stretched, sweaty and weary by mid-afternoon as I headed to Hammersmith Underground to make my way to Heathrow – British Airways had cancelled a flight, hence the different airports.

Now, London is a strange place. It’s where the action is, frankly, but I’ve never been a fan. I’ve been to a range of interesting cities at different points in my life – Chicago, Amsterdam, Paris, Hamburg, plus pretty much all the major cities in the UK – and London is easily my least favourite. I’m sorry Londoners, but that’s how it is for me.

For one thing, it’s a place where many of its residents seem downright miserable, and I don’t blame them. Life happens at 100mph there, and few seem to take the time to breathe and count to ten. It’s expensive while also feeling cheap, and I once had a woman actually look at me in horror when I asked for directions a few years ago – much to my colleague’s amusement. They told me you can’t just ask a stranger for directions in London. Well, that’s just rather sad, and it’s something I’ve done in every other city with better results. To be fair, on this most recent trip I asked someone in a shop for directions and they helped me, so there are exceptions to the rule.

In any case, back to the tube station. I was standing and minding my own business, dressed smartly while also no doubt looking a bit scruffy with wind bedraggled hair and a barely groomed beard, when a man appeared next to me and just started talking.

I would guess he was in his late 60s, but perhaps younger and worn down by life. Shorter than me (which is rare) at about 5 foot 5, his clothes were a little worse for wear and he was clutching a travel bag and a Sainsbury’s plastic bag. He had thinning hair and yellowing teeth, while his hands were blackened at the finger tips – the reason for that would become clear.

He had a strong Irish accent (Northern I think) and initially he was talking about Southampton train station; I’m not sure why and I struggled to get that context out of him. He quickly moved on and explained that he’d had a charity volunteer asking him for money, but that he needed the pound more than them as his flat had burned down.

For my part, I mainly just listened, occasionally pitching in with sympathetic comments. From what he told me he’d woken up to discover a fire in his flat, so he grabbed what he could and got out while waiting for the Fire Brigade. He explained that he’d lost everything, and multiple times talked about ‘gardening stuff’ he’d collected for thousands of pounds; he’d seemingly built up this equipment to do some work as a handyman on people’s gardens and property.

I’m giving you the short version, as over the course of five minutes he often repeated points over and over. He then said the police had held him for 24 hours on suspicion of starting the fire himself. They’d let him go but he was still a ‘suspect’, though he was bemused as to why he’d burn down his flat and leave himself broke and homeless; this is only his side of the story, of course.

Now he was trying to figure out where to sleep, and that was the crux of it. He didn’t want anything from me, this wasn’t a build-up to asking for money, he just wanted someone to talk to. In addition to losing his home and being broke in London, I think a big problem he had was loneliness. A lifechanging event had happened and he didn’t seem to have anyone to share it with. All I did was stand there, engage and listen to him.

It was an encounter that I found saddening, of course, empathetic of the plight this man seemed to be in, and not having much to offer him but a sympathetic ear. Yet looking around the station most were visibly trying to avoid him, as if his poverty and desperation was infectious. A nearby woman actually looked at him and visibly gestured that he was unhygienic, an act so childish and callous that I had no idea how to react.

My train arrived, I wished him the best and he returned the favour, smiling as I departed – “Remember, money isn’t everything” were his final words to me. I was just a random guy, but in a world that is sometimes incredibly cruel and shitty he was grateful to have simply had a conversation.

I hope he’s alright, though I worry he won’t get far without help from someone, somewhere. I’m not sure if I could have done much for him. Should I have offered a bit of money, would that have offended him? Too late to say.

Why did I write this? I guess I wanted to recount the tale because we all fear loneliness, having nothing or no-one and finding little sympathy from others. I worry sometimes about my future life, like everyone does. I’m the youngest in my family and I’m single, and have lost touch with so many of my friends – I have time to try and fix these things, of course, but don’t want to end up a 70 year-old on my own.

I also wrote this to highlight that, as a species, we do show some signs of drifting away from each other, losing the ability to help and support those weaker or less fortunate than ourselves. It’s easy to get sucked into our lives and ambitions, while being ‘winners’ is highlighted by some as the biggest priority in life. I happen to think that the greatest reflection of a society is how they treat those that need the most help. A lot of the time people do show incredible humanity, and demonstrate heartening acts of kindness to help others. Yet there are aspects of current life that show the opposite – vulnerable people are pushed out, shunned and isolated.

I think people can be amazing, generous and thoughtful. I just hope those instincts win through, and that we don’t descend into being a society where those out of luck and with nothing to their name are left to wander alone, desperate for even the simplest human connection or show of empathy.

Constant Online Outrage is a Useless Replacement for Empathy

In recent months I’ve been having a mini crisis in terms of my work. As someone who spends lengthy working days online I see a lot of the good and bad in online culture, and having been doing this ‘job’ for a good few years I’ve seen a shift in how the internet sustains itself. The economy of the web is not just in dollars and pounds, but in trends and mindshare, and I’ve seen the latter non-currency evolve in ugly and facile ways.

I’m at a good age to have a ‘history’ with the web. I remember when it was young, rough around the edges, and loading a low-resolution video would take ages before it would inevitably just buffer anyway. Usage restrictions were tight, so every page view had to be carefully considered. It was a rather humorous place, despite this dog-owner rolling his eyes at the fascination most had with cats.

That’s changed and the web has evolved, however, and I’m not convinced it’s for the better. Along with reality TV the web became a source of celebrity, and as the internet economy grew it began to monetise itself. With monetisation there was a gradual loss of free-wheeling spirit as capitalisation took hold, at least in the mainstream outlets and pages thrown at us by web browsers, and a terrible thing happened – we realised that we could effectively be anonymous or, instead, a fake version of ourselves.

Whereas in the pre-broadband and smartphone era we consumed the web as readers, now we own it, and with that has come the abundance of selfies and celebrities literally only famous for being controversial. Someone can be very rich without much discernible talent if they conquer social media, and controlling that part of the web earns coverage on the endless buzz sites. And here’s something else I’ve learnt – negativity is what many want in their web content.

I’ve seen it in the relatively genteel world of Nintendo, where an issue that’s controversial gets far more engagement than an article about something positive, and that’s a sad state of affairs. The common factor with that engagement is outrage – people like to be angry, at least artificially, and they like sharing that with everyone else. I’ve occasionally done it myself but trained myself out of it, but for some it seems to be a profession.

The trouble is that many people, based on trends and much of the nonsense perpetuated all over the web, get outraged at the wrong thing. To quote The Guardian’s Jonathan Jones – “Anger is distorting modern life”. We rage against things we can’t change or are largely unimportant, because it’s what everyone else is doing, we’re jealous of the person / thing in question, or a host of other reasons. Plenty then share that rage online, desperate to show how much they care about a particular topic, often while spectacularly missing the point.

The trouble with outrage is that it rarely brings about much change. In the real non-digital world there are countless examples where anger and rage has helped kickstart social change, but after the protests and riots there’s always a lot of real work and compromise that happens. Yet in this era of trends millions latch onto a topic, argue furiously for a few days, then forget all about it.

They’re rarely conversations that we have online, either, and with our artificial online identities we can act without reason and logic. It’s the easiest thing in the world to be outraged, to find something to blame and scream bloody murder about it, and now that’s become a popular way to pass time. As millions do this it becomes the prevalent way social media works, which then bleeds into conventional media. It’s all entirely democratic, of course, but when people complain about the media, for example, I want to say it’s exactly what we deserve.

Sadly, I can’t help but feel that more and more people are taking the selfishness and narcissism that floods the web and applying it to real life. I look at the current state of politics here in the UK, EU and US and wonder what the end game is, as a cynical public then ironically encourages increasingly cynical politicians. We have a Chancellor in the UK who often targets the weak and seems to write budgets on a napkin before casually ditching a policy (with no funding replacement) if the public turn on it, and we have the bizarre reality of someone like Donald Trump being a potential President of the United States. Discrimination and hate are becoming far too effective in politics – as I said, negativity sells.

Yet negativity is a waste. Empathy, an awareness of others that is fundamental to the best of humanity, comes from positivity. It’s easy and lazy to find something to rage about, but it takes effort to empathise and to understand. When extremists blow themselves up it’s easy to blame the religion which they claim to represent, but it’s more important to stand with those being misrepresented by monsters that want to terrorise the public.

The internet is still a platform for wonderful things – it has knowledge, entertainment and the best nature of people in abundance. Yet we need to seek these elements out and make them the leading forces in the web economy. Next time cynicism is the first instinct in response to something, we should double take and reassess. If we’re angry about a selfish rich man with an empty palace, rather than give that oxygen we should promote and support organisations that help the homeless. If an attention-seeking celebrity says something vile to get headlines, don’t give them the oxygen of a retweet.

The internet can still be an incredible force of good, but we need to care about how we use it.