Sarah Woodall

My marginalia and some of the things that I do

just a doodle

Ten implausible years

After dinner yesterday evening, in the final hours of the decade, the conversation turned to fiction that is based on counterfactual history (Fatherland and so on). Someone pointed out that this has an inherent limitation: it mustn’t surprise you too thoroughly, because of the need to keep the story plausible. Reality, on the other hand, is not constrained in the same way. And over the last ten years it has been taking full advantage of this freedom. As someone else said last night, since 9/11 we all seem to have been living in some kind of parallel universe.

My personal experience of the 21st century so far has been rather implausible, too. Most of what I was doing at the turn of the millennium could reasonably have been predicted at least 15 years before that, by extrapolation (not the details, of course, but the broad trends). The disruptive event in my life was the dotcom bubble, right at the start of the decade. I was just sitting there at my desk, minding my own business (or rather, my employer’s), when it picked me up, whirled me around, and then—pop!—deposited me, a bit shaken, in a delightful spot on the bank of the river. The consequences of this are still working themselves out. It was the start of a journey, and I don’t know yet where I’m going.

Overload

This is just a “me too”, but it’s a heartfelt one.

Charlie Brooker in Monday’s Guardian: “Every day we humans gleefully churn out yet more books and films and TV shows and videogames and websites and magazine articles and blog posts and emails and text messages, all of it hanging around, competing for attention. Without leaving my seat I can access virtually any piece of music ever recorded, download any film ever made, order any book ever written. And the end result is that I hardly experience any of it.”

Mariella Frostrup in last weekends Observer: “I’m the sort of lunatic who considers the phone ringing an invasion of personal privacy, who can’t muster the energy to respond to emails that run at more than a paragraph. At night I lie awake wracked with guilt about unanswered texts and messages but during daylight hours can’t drum up the willpower to clear either my conscience or my in-tray.”

Enough (more than enough) said.

Hoarding and what journalists do

Two things in Saturday’s Guardian caught my eye. A “boo” article about compulsive hoarding (“Why didn’t someone stop him? The council? The neighbours? Someone should have intervened…”) and a “hurrah” article about personal informatics—which (it seems to me) is just electronic compulsive hoarding!

Both articles interested me a lot because I have hoarding tendencies myself, but what struck me most was the extent to which both articles were shaped by the journalists’ desire to tell a story.

Refreshing contrast is provided by the new Science Behind the News Stories site.

Joining the dots

Now I have set things up so that posting to this blog generates a tweet automatically. And, whenever I twitter, my Facebook status updates. Is this a good idea? Or will it just result in a lot of things getting mixed up that ought to have been kept separate?

I’m not sure what I think about all this web 2.0 stuff. It makes life harder in some ways. It is certainly harder to say “Sorry, I was too busy” when the fact that you have just spent several hours having unproductive fun is a matter of public record.

And how do prolific twitterers manage when travelling? How can I say “I’m in Venice” without saying “My house is unoccupied and ripe for burglary”—especially when my professional site, which is linked from my personal one, tells the world that I have access to an impressive array of computing and photographic equipment?

Perhaps my tweets need to be a bit more elliptical.

Art, speech and planning

One of our neighbours is Michael Gillespie, the sculptor. We went to his open studio recently, and Andrew asked him to what extent he plans in advance the way his abstract sculptures will develop. He replied that it’s like speech: do you plan exactly what you’re going to say before you start talking?

A while ago I was talking with Alan about what it’s like to do your job in a foreign language (he uses German every day and even chairs meetings in it). He said that he thinks German-speakers plan their speeches more carefully than we do. Before you launch into one of those long sentences with the verb at the end you have to know where you’re going!

Maybe it’s the same with sculpture: perhaps you would plan it more, or less, depending on the medium you were using. As with spoken languages, some materials might lend themselves to spontaneity while others would reward a more premeditated approach.

Planning blight

This is what happens to urban areas when there is a grand plan – something that might involve demolishing existing buildings – under discussion but not decided upon (perhaps there’s a dispute over planning permission or there are problems finding the money). The motivation to maintain the existing buildings and streetscape is lost. What’s the point, when it’s all going to be pulled down soon? Things gradually decay. You can see it at the moment in Cambridge in the area around the railway station.

Recently I’ve realised that planning blight can happen on a domestic scale too, and that in fact our own house and garden have got a bad case of it. Ever since we moved into this house (2001) we’ve known that we wanted to make radical changes. (We bought it because of its location.) This culminated last year in a scheme to demolish the whole thing and start again. I was quite enamoured of the idea for several months and am only gradually being persuaded out of it by my more cautious other half.

Meanwhile none of the over-counter lighting in the kitchen works any more.