Too Early for Birdsong
Nicolas D. Sampson
Down Shaftesbury Avenue I walked, my eyelids half-shut, the light dissolving into diagonal stripes in my field of vision: yellow, orange, red, green. Immersed in diagonal beams of refracted light I dodged the pedestrians and traffic, weaving my way through the bustle, dying to let everyone know that our world operated on massive overkill. I wanted to stop people in their tracks and share my thoughts with them. We could turn it down a notch and still be maxed out, lack nothing of consequence, I would explain. We didn’t need bacon-flavored beer or phone apps that took pictures that made our food sparkle. We didn’t need to cut down all the trees to wipe our backsides clean in triple-quilted comfort or burn down the forests to make way for palm tree plantations and the cheap cooking oil that made our desserts ultra-yummy. We could eat less tempting sweets and still get a kick out of life. Eat less meat and transport our fruit in biodegradable wrapping. Embrace hydrogen-powered cars. Tone down the gloss. There was no need to keep the streetlights on all night; they ate up the stars. And the unmanageable traffic, remnant of early 20th-century technology and mentality – it scared away the birds, and what kind of a life is it when there are no birds left to sing?
At least we have the night. Despite the noise and light pollution, the nightingales come out in the gardens and the city echoes timeless. A coterie of avian druids, these feathery minstrels weave their spirit through the encrusted streets, a song from the early days, reminding us that there’s more to life than our fanfare, pointing at the magic between the cracks.
It was too early for birdsong in Theatreland. The simian act was in full swing. I veered into the side streets and followed the scent of spices and crispy duck dishes and came out the other end of Chinatown onto an ice-cream-and-waffles parlor on Leicester Square where a child had just bitten into a golden, crispy waffle the size of his head, taking down doses of sugar that would shock his pancreas into diabetes. Both parents laughed, swiping his mouth and telling him to take his time. A homeless person at the street corner watched with resignation, a battered coffee cup by his side, gathering the pedestrians’ spare pity. The clouds were a baleful orange, reflecting the city glare. My feet were on autopilot, the air steaming with confections, concoctions, garlic, the odd stray fart, a whiff of pee that gave way to the oily sourness of French fries and burgers, zingers and chicken thighs. Billboards flashed their products five stories high and a wave of tourists – their carefree transience unmistakable – pushed through the streets like a torrent. I eeled my way through the crowds, past the Swiss Clock and the M&M store. I saw teenagers sleepwalk their way into gaming arcades, their eyes afroth with pixels. I heard the sound of digital hypnosis.
The first person you fall in love with, you never really talk about, not even with yourself. The intensity is tremendous, the implications raw. Everyone after our first is a substitute, and we know it, but we pretend not to, and may even forget about it on some level as the years go by, aware of the truth only on select occasions, such as when the intoxicants kick in or when our body is stressed, when our mind is crushed or something exerts unwarranted pressure – then we become aware of things we could have sworn we’d put behind us once and for all.
Our virgin stirrings of love are never forgotten, no matter the pain.
Still, we hardly ever talk about them.
When we do, it hurts down to the marrow.
When we feel down, why do we call it the blues? The sky, of all things, is blue, and so is the sea, and so are things that brides wear at their weddings (well, that could go either way, between bliss and ruin) in some parts of the world. Blue is a tremendous color, full of energy and potential, and the ‘blues’ need a rethink, if not a rebrand.
How about the ‘greys’?
Then again, this town is grey half the daytime and it’s a pale shade of glorious. The lack of vibrancy depresses us, but we soar when the color returns.
There’s also the brain’s grey matter. It doesn’t get brighter than that, although, to be fair, an abundance in grey matter has been associated with restlessness and unhappiness. Then again, restlessness is associated with drive, which leads to breakthrough and achievement, perhaps success, which leads to recognition, which may lead to happiness and fulfillment, although it may involve risk, which may result in damage and turmoil, or, if one is ready to make use of what’s available, it may bring about focus, nerve, the will to carry on, determination in the face of adversity, dogged commitment, which may improve one’s game…
I guess the greys are as complicated as the blues.
I was suffering from a severe case of both.
I roamed Soho, up and down sickly-lit alleyways stitched with dingy arcades. Sex and porn shops everywhere. Music stores selling vinyl and CDs. Health shops with protein shakes and supplements on special offer.
I found myself on the fabulous Carnaby Street and from there in Kingly Court where I bought myself a chicken wrap with mint leaves, tomato and hummus, followed by a slice of pepperoni-burrata pizza.
On the other side of Regent Street, off Piccadilly, there was an array of posh arcades lit up like a fairytale. At the entrance stood guards in fancy uniform – coat, hat, red-golden frill. I greeted them and they tipped their hats.
Back on Piccadilly, just before the Ritzy part, more cafeterias and sushi bars and confectionaries and chocolateries and brasseries, all of them bursting with a clientele trained to stand in line to order what it wanted. The automation of society – fast, efficient, almost machine-like in nature, always on the go and increasingly utilitarian, and politely impersonal – was in plain sight, a tremendous success. I could hear the commentary in my head, the lines from some future documentary on London: ‘Choice and indulgence turned Londoners into walking paradoxes. We gave and took orders as if on the march, foregoing the luxury of relaxation. True leisure eluded us. The time to sit down and enjoy a ‘cuppa’ without clocking each other became a thing of the past. We denied ourselves the chance to be civil. We were polite and courteous and law-abiding, but civility eluded us.’
Our way of life at its most predatory, captured for posterity. On screen for everyone to watch, not only now but down the line.
A hurried existence is a rude one. We wander around our huge mess-hall-of-a-town ordering things – and each other – as if we’re wardens (or captives), so utterly accustomed to its trappings we can’t imagine anything different.
I see elderly people meander through the civilized madness, wondering how much longer.
I see red lights and green lights and yellow lights and black lights around which people congregate and follow instructions.
I see LED lights and smile at the irony. We sure are, led down a path we presume our own.
I stared at the city lights and breathed in the ice-cold mist. My lungs were on fire. I shook my arms to get the blood flowing to my fingertips and sucked in air through stiff cupped hands until the burn in my lungs subsided.
Before long, I got into a rhythm. My mind settled. The external world receded, dissolved in the miracle of inhale-exhale, in, out, and I relaxed, no longer worried about the price I paid. (Breathe hard in the middle of traffic congestion and the free radicals have a field day inside you. That price!) Every chunk of air I inhaled was now worth it. So what if it drenched my alveoli with poison? Each lungful was a reminder that I was alive.
My head spun. I felt like screaming, such was my excitement, but screaming isn’t allowed in ordinary settings. Do it, and you’re likely to end up in a chamber within a chamber, a cell of your very own with three rubbish meals a day. The crack under the steel door lets in a sliver of light and the loneliness of existence increases tenfold.
When I was a boy I went on a school trip to the countryside. I don’t remember where exactly but we stopped at a castle where the guide told us that the estate had been made famous by a baron who loved torturing his servants. The walls had secret passages through which he checked up on the staff, and his bloodlust was so great that he’d fitted the lower-level chambers with ghastly devices, performing the deeds himself.
One day, the guide said with a grin, the baron disappeared, and legend has it that he tripped and broke his neck inside those passages, a victim of his own security system. Some say he was locked in, all the exits blocked by his staff. Others claim that his servants ambushed him in his sleep. There was even a rumor that they ate him.
Whatever the case, life in the estate went on without a hitch after the baron disappeared. It was business as usual, as if he were present, cries of pain and anguish still coming from the dungeons.
Years later a feud broke out between the Crown and the lords of the land. The feud escalated, resulting in a failed rebellion, and the estate was seized by the Crown and transferred to a rival lord, who replaced the staff with his own.
Within a year, a third of the newcomers had gone missing, and the rest of them packed up and left in the middle of the night.
Unwilling to spend more time or resources on it, the lord leased the estate to a company owned by the former staff, who have been operating it ever since. It’s business as usual, and if one keeps quiet, extremely quiet, the baron may be heard calling from inside the walls, cursing their legacy and threatening revenge.
The guide laughed, and then he bid us follow him down the stairs. Someone asked if it was safe and everyone laughed and jeered.
‘Be careful,’ the guide said. ‘We don’t want to leave anyone behind.’
When I told Mother the story she asked me if I’d been frightened.
I shook my head.
‘Perhaps the baron was a little liar, too,’ she said, ‘when he was your age.’
She licked her fingers and brushed my hair and walked out of the room, closing the door softly behind her.
The world is not a prison. The analogy goes too far. We’re free to go about our business – in this part of the globe – to venture from one place to the next without explicit permission. We float from career to career and from relationship to affair, from one narrative to the next, from franchise to franchise – from Costa Coffee to Starbucks, Star Wars to Star Trek, Game Of Thrones and the Harry Potter franchise, Ted Lasso and The Last of Us – consuming what we want, talking about what excites us, what we’re willing to pay good money for. We switch subscriptions, preferences, activities, allegiances, even people, as we please. We do what we fancy, within reason, custom, and the rule of law. There are countless rules to follow, but rules don’t a prison make: punishment and restriction do, and though metaphorically it’s cool to label this world a carcel, there’s more to it than that. We determine our course in this intricate labyrinth of ours (gauntlet, anyone?) and call it life. Bleak, dank, stained and solitary the city may be when at its worst, but it’s no prison.
And yet we feel incarcerated. Despite our liberties and privileges, we’re constrained by the construct itself.
Perhaps we’ve become too philosophical in our postmodernist supertechnology days.
Perhaps this says a lot more about us than about the construct itself.
We operate inside a structure much bigger than us, so very old and grand, we deem ourselves minuscule, irrelevant, crushed under the weight of history. The demands of the present, the burdens of our future. Our existence is stretched paper-thin on the vast infrastructure we assemble. We become ghosts in shells, silent, regulated, restrained, overwhelmed, muddled, cast over the town like the bleak orange cloud cover at night, like mist at dawn. Like dreams in waking life.
The bright urban wilderness feeds on those who comprise it. It sucks on our verve, licks up our marrow, leaves behind bones for an existential bonfire.
Spirits of today, waiting in corners, in the glare of spotlights. They stalk the lost and all who wander.
I’m surrounded by shadows and apparitions.
My purpose is to find purpose. Something toward which to move, and by which to be moved. We’re creatures of narrative. We respond to the stories we tell ourselves. I need a story to keep going, a point to focus on. It’s about having a goal, somewhere to go. Faith in the process, a love for the journey. We don’t wander aimlessly – or lose faith, substance, or memory – when we have a vision. We don’t go round in circles, and when we do, it’s for a reason.
The city was alive with enterprise. The streetlights spoke of joy and potential, endless transaction. I focused on the zest of the store windows, the smiles of the customers. Deep down, they were alive, these people. There was delight and urgency in their eyes. Vivacious creatures of flesh and blood, desire, bubbly uncertainty, they saunter the streets eager to buy themselves – or their loved ones – a gift, to buy something, anything to validate their (our) (everyone’s) bonds.
Bouncing through the traffic, contemplating Christmas gifts, Easter bunnies, playboy bunnies in disguise, playhouses of all kinds, kindred spirits, kind people, lost souls, I searched and ogled, looking for a kind word, for reason to be kind. I wanted a moment I could capture, isolate and turn into a memory, something to never forget and perhaps even talk about while reminiscing one day, and while I did all that it dawned on me that everyone was alone.
We were alone in our multitude.
The more I thought about it, the more sense it made and the clearer it was. We were agencies unto ourselves, each of us a planet in a swirl of galaxies, connected in intangible ways, drawn together by the gravity of our system, parts of a giant enterprise that allowed us to sustain each other. We were alive and vibrant and at our most human when in each other’s presence, our loneliness forgotten, browsing and purchasing items for one another, for ourselves, for those hard times down the line, keeping the enterprise alive.
When was the last time I got someone a gift?
Our loneliness defines us. We orbit each other in communitarian arrangement, always in people’s vicinity, yet alone. We mingle, but it doesn’t change the fact that we spin through space and time individually, connected through trade and gifts, building pathways and bridges and common experiences before rotating back to our personal sector. Round we go, feeling the tug of the world, pulled in by everyone, going through the motions, our rotations unending.
Those not fully invested in this arrangement have a different experience. We’re more like comets than orbiting planets, making our way through.
Imagine a universe of rotating bodies, an elegant structure engaged in choreography, down which zips a mass of matter that drills its way through space en route to who knows where.
One might call this ‘comet’ a blackguard, a rogue.
Others might call it an (individual’s) individual. A free radical. A flare of inspiration in a world of prescription and routine. An original. Uncompromising. Unpredictable. Distressing. A bad influence, a source of danger. A soaring spirit. Icarus. Orlando. Indefinable. An enigma.
What dare I ask happens to the individuals? Are we indeed the comets of this universe, cutting through space without end, leaving debris in our wake? Are we the only ones who find fault with our system – that it shouldn’t be so binary, caught between orbit and free-fall – and that perhaps a more elaborate framework is in order? That we ought to upgrade our stories and narratives to accommodate for the people and choices that don’t fall inside clear-cut categories, and finally open the world to those among us who hurl through space and time in a blaze?
The salespersons squirreled around, keeping their turf in shape. Another day, another spree, more commission in their pocket. A day well spent. Some of them probably love their jobs, do what they do not just for the money but for the joy of serving others. (It sounds corny and silly when phrased that way, but there’s nothing wrong with a little silly corn to fluff up the cynical.)
I’m a fan of both outlooks – all outlooks – depending. There are people who love what they do, driven by more than just money, and there are those who for a price would do anything. London is good for that. It serves all perspectives, tends to all tastes. The cultures of the world come together in our superlative city to interact and coexist in managed competition, for the most part, and do so with a success rate that is an example to imitate. The setup works. All races and faiths and personalities and points of view are in operation. A massive Schrödinger’s box: everything is in play until you observe it and label it, giving rise to an outcome that gives rise to a million possibilities. All bets are on, the game ongoing. We do business with everyone, solve problem after problem because this town is a huge engine, its history a cipher of continuity and pragmatism. We commute like sheep but think like machines, suffer daily abuse that builds character, feel proud to be part of a successful urban organization. We stand together on escalators, rise and descend en masse, en route to work and back, home, the gym, the pub. In the gritty street corners, beside service doors and docking spaces, the homeless starve in isolation, muscled out by the organized gangs of charity muggers. We accept it as part of life. Perfectionism is not a pragmatic viewpoint. We live for the next day, the coming accomplishment. The city thrives on application and adjustment. The streets belong to the players, to the confident and well-kempt, but look closely and you realize it’s an act. The streets, when you take a moment to observe them, belong to none but London itself. We are mere actors on its vast stage, reciting our way through, improvising when we have to, getting the job done.
Then again, actors have a way of assuming control of the stage, injecting it with purpose. Without them it’s just scaffolding, empty space. Actors control the stage as much as it controls them. We’re in this together, playing our part.
I love Theatreland’s crowds before show time. Their excitement is infectious. People stand in clusters, chatting, waiting for the doors to open, their glossy programs in their hands, the whiff of entertainment and criticism bubbling in the district. There they go, swallowed up like eager children at an amusement ride. A couple of hours later they spill out on the street with smiles on their faces, tears in the eyes, blowing their noses, dabbing their eyes, out the fire exits because that’s how you exit a show in the West End: out the back. They analyze what they’ve experienced as they frolic into the bars for a civilized pint, another glass of wine, a noteworthy single malt that will loosen their tongues. They congregate in the pubs where people have been gathering for centuries, talking politics, culture, sports, religion (all kinds), life and death and the concept of resurrection – be it religious, political, economic, cultural, professional or genetic – as well as fashion, history, policy, and, of course, the weather. You can’t have a civilized discussion without touching on the weather.
‘Miserable day today.’
‘That bloody drizzle.’
‘It’ll be absolutely glorious tomorrow, they said.’
Soon, the banter shifts to other topics.
‘The NHS is a mess.’
‘The NHS is our crown jewel.’
‘Figure it’ll come home this year?’
‘The congestion charge is a good idea but…’
‘Council tax has gone right up again.’
‘Quite chilly, isn’t it?’
These are the subjects the public talks about, mixing it up like a Pimm’s cocktail:
‘Bloody Europe! Bureaucrats, the lot of them!’
‘Jude Law did justice to Henry V! What a graceful performance!’
‘Bloody monarchs, if you ask me. Cromwell was right…’
‘Politicians! Blasted buggers, thinking they can take the piss! We’re onto them. This is a changed world.’
‘Do you think it’s coming home anytime soon?’
‘Very chilly indeed.’
I stopped and looked around. The crowds and billboards had vanished.
I was standing at The Hard Rock Café entrance near Hyde Park Corner.
They say that dreams are interpretations of life, fantasies of the sleeping mind, but I think they’re real in their own right.
What happens in a dream happens to the dreamer.
Nicolas D. Sampson is Books Editor at Panorama
Nicolas D. Sampson is a writer-producer, and the author of the poetry collection Όμορφη η Υφήλιος (The Globe Is Beautiful) by Armos Books. He wrote and co-produced Behind the Mirror (winner Best Thriller in the Manhattan Film Festival), and was an executive producer on Show Me the Picture: The Story of Jim Marshall (winner Best Arts or Music Documentary) and Hope Gap.
Too Early for Birdsong is an adapted excerpt from his upcoming novel A Pale Shade of Glorious.