A good while back* I talked in these pages about my first trip into London since before all this happened. How the familiar felt so alien, and how whilst so much had changed, so much other stuff was just as it always had been.
And the thing that I really can’t stop thinking about, which keeps on popping back into my mind, is the thing that felt like it hadn’t changed at all. And that’s the homeless guy I mentioned, sitting in the place he always sits, just along from London Bridge station, next to the back entrance to Guy’s Hospital.
Every day for as long as I’d made the trip to our office near the Tate Modern, this guy had been there. Always sitting on the floor, surrounded by old copies of the Big Issue in plastic covers, talking to himself a bit and occasionally saying hello to the regular people who walked by. Sometimes people would stop and squat next to him to talk, but more often than not he was there on his own. Every day.
And there he was when I went into London for the first time… and there he’s been on every day I’ve been since. sitting as he always has, like nothing has changed, still asking passers-by for if they can spare some change for him.
He’d been there every day for years, so why was it so surprising to me that he was there again on the day that I decided to come back into London for the first time in 14 months? Just because I hadn’t been there, why wouldn’t he? Yet it did surprise me, because whilst the whole experience was so very different for me his presence was so very familiar, like the gap from then to now simply didn’t happen. Like Covid was some kind of dystopian daydream I’d had on the train.
And now, it’s become less surprising and is becoming more and more an expected part of my journey to our office. I think I’d be more surprised if he weren’t there. But I’ll never forget the surprise of that first time for as long as I live.
I’ve talked in these pages before about the way that your time and mine aren’t necessarily the same – that perhaps we experience time differently to each other, and even our own experience of time changes depending on what we’re doing. You think this cricket match is fascinating, I think it’s taking longer than the whole of history. This day doing something I love has flown by… this day doing something I find dull will seemingly never end.
On a micro level, that’s self-evident to me – objectively something we all experience.
But this was different. Time was playing with me here, surely. How could time fly and stand still at the same time? Make it feel like yesterday, but with the knowledge that the last time I stood here I was two birthdays younger.
And how did the last year feel to him? Did time drag or did it fly? Did it feel any different to any of the other years he’s had?
Time flies. Yet some people have time to spare, but never any spare change.
We have time and we spend time. We waste time, and we save time. It’s the same language that we use for money – hell, “time is money” remember? Precious time. We recognise its importance.
And you can tell from the phrases we use that unconsciously we understand our one-sided relationship with time too – our reliance on it but lack of control over it. Time flies. Time waits for no man. We’re on borrowed time, and ultimately only time will tell.
It would be conceited and condescending for me to begin to suppose anything about this man’s life, or about his experience of the last 20 months. Like so many of us I’ve worked out my recent history based on lockdowns – how far I could go from my house; what places I could visit or shop in; whom I could see or hug, how many could be where at any time – and all of those denote privileges and freedoms that this man does not have. For all my insignificant worries, I know where I am sleeping tonight. I know who will hug me in the morning.
What I do know about this man is that it’s doubtful that the few quid he might get from the throngs who pass by will change anything other than the few hours ahead.
Even more than that, I know he doesn’t need my pity, or the thousands of embarrassed half shrugs which mean “sorry I don’t have any change” he gets every day. I know that every time I catch his eye I give him a nod and a smile, and he does the same back, and every time I feel like I should do something more fucking useful, but besides giving him money every day I have no idea what that might be. Maybe the smile is that thing?
Lastly, I know that if there’s a better demonstration of how you might consider someone else’s experience of the world and measure it against your own to see an impossible myriad of differences then I haven’t come across it before, and I’m not sure I ever will.
Perhaps to give myself a purpose from this whole thing – to give it context, beyond just contemplation – I’ll commit to consider other people’s experience of the world even more than I have. Because there’s no question that however they experience the world, it’s unlikely to be anything like the world of which I’m in the middle.
*With noting that yeah it’s been a long while since my last post. If you’re a regular reader then I hope you haven’t missed out too much. If you’re new to the show, then I feel like there might be lots to come in the coming weeks so stay tuned!