Was approached for this terrific role recently. I’m not too keen on travelling for work, so the recruiter asked me to share it with my ‘network’. Good luck if you apply!
On my wall there’s a print of a photo by Andreas Gursky called Chicago Board of Trade II. It depicts The Windy City’s stock exchange as a bewildering blur of frantic activity, with individuals barely identifiable unless you squint to pick them out in their jaunty red jackets or white shirts. And if you unfocus your eyes and stare at it for long enough, it transforms from a richly detailed scene featuring hundreds of human beings into a colourful collection of abstract, Pollock-esque splashes.
The original piece, to which my little print does scant justice, first mesmerised me in a passageway at Tate Modern. It was hard to imagine any order emerging from the chaos in the scene, despite the fact it showed people at work, performing a job; and this sense was enhanced by the fact that it was literally bigger than me and everyone else gazing at it – it was about two and a half metres wide and almost as tall. It was, in the real sense of the word, awesome. (I’ve argued elsewhere about my hatred of the word ‘awesome’, but here it’s justified.) It was probably bigger than the wall in my flat on which my print hangs. I felt dwarfed by a massive picture of hundreds of little people, and I loved it.
A few years later I was at Tate Modern again to see Rachel Whiteread’s Embankment exhibition. It comprised 14,000 white boxes, stacked in seemingly random configurations, all over the Turbine Hall. It was weird, and I wasn’t sure if it felt like art to me. But it was big, and overwhelming, and the kind of thing you don’t see everyday. Again, I liked it because it made me feel small.
Being made to feel small, for many, probably has negative connotations. It’s a common lyrical trope in pop music, and it’s come to have more of an emotional than physical resonance. But I think the physical sensation of feeling small, whether in the face of nature, or art, or architecture, is one of the most inspirational things a human being can experience. Like magic, or technology, it gives a sense of wonder. I might feel differently if King Kong or Godzilla came thundering down the street towards me, but thankfully that’s unlikely to happen.
Why do I like to feel small? Maybe because it’s stirring to be exposed to big (unthreatening) things over which you have no control, which you can’t fathom. Things that overwhelm you physically, but not emotionally.
Everyday life requires you exert control. You have to get up at a certain time, get to work, actually do work, remember to eat, look after kids, pay bills… Maybe it’s a perspective thing. Sometimes you just want to be wowed and remember that there are bigger things than remembering to take out the rubbish. Although landfills can be quite a spectacle, too.
There’s an appealing madness in man-made big stuff, too. What kind of lunatic would create The Eiffel Tower? 19th Century Paris had its fair share of pressing issues – here are ten of them, for example. And yet, for some, a gargantuan metal phallus to mark the 1889 World’s Fair took precedence.
I’m a sucker for big art, in a pretty ignorant way. I’m not sure I even have any other criteria by which to judge big art, except for that I like its bigness. Take The Writer by Giancarlo Neri, which was exhibited on London’s Hampstead Heath a few years ago. This was, simply, a massive table and chair.
It got a lot of people riled up. Was it art? Was it an eyesore? I went to see it and thought it was great, mainly because – well, when else are you going to see a bloody massive table and chair in the middle of a field? It was ridiculous, and something I’ll probably never forget. Lots of other people evidently felt the same, since there were plenty staring at it in wonder/confusion. I also found it interesting that one of my first thoughts on seeing it was, “I wonder if I could climb that?” (I couldn’t, but I hear others did.) I like to feel small, but maybe I feel urged to challenge the things that make me feel that way, as they have to really earn it.
“To make us feel small in the right way is a function of art; men can only make us feel small in the wrong way.” — E. M. Forster
I like this quote. But what about small women who like really tall men?
I always feel small when I’m about to fly somewhere. It’s still a shock to round a corner into a departure gate and see a hulking great metal bird sitting there, as if it’s waiting to eat you. Of course, the feeling of smallness is demolished once you take your seat, when (unless you’re flying posh class) your cramped surroundings suddenly make you, and whoever’s next to you, feel like an imprisoned giant.
Nevertheless, is there anything more amazing than being rammed into a crappy seat and staring dolefully out the window at featureless tarmac and scrub, before taking off and suddenly, out of nowhere, the sea appears over your shoulder? It looks like it goes on forever, and then you remember that what you see is only something like 0.1% of all the bodies of water on the planet.
(Confession: sometimes when I’m on a beach and I’m staring out at the vast, endless sea, and I think about how many unexplored regions there are beneath the surface, and how many waves there have ever been… Well, I wonder how many human bodies there are under the sea. There, I said it.)
You can’t help but feel small looking at the sea, and it blows my mind to think about its size. 70% of the Earth’s surface is water. There are mountain ranges under the Pacific Ocean. The sea is deeper than the land on earth is tall. The sea floor goes down a couple of miles or more. As you read this, the human race is the most advanced it has ever been – and yet experts reckon we’ve explored 7% of the sea floor, tops. It’s so dark down there that for years we thought nothing could live there – but loads of things live there that we know about, and probably even more that we don’t. And so on.
Nature’s always going to win out against man-made structures when it comes to making you feel small. But man can document nature pretty effectively, and perhaps no photo has had an impact on the human race like 1968’s Earthrise. The first photo of Earth from space, it was taken by the Apollo 8 crew, who were the first people to orbit the Moon.
And if you want to feel small, quotes from cosmonauts, astronauts and astronomers on the view of the Earth do a grand job. Here are some of my favourites:
“Once during the mission I was asked by ground control what I could see. ‘What do I see?’ I replied. ‘Half a world to the left, half a world to the right, I can see it all. The Earth is so small.'” — Vitali Sevastyanov, Soviet Cosmonaut
“As we got further and further away, it [the Earth] diminished in size. Finally it shrank to the size of a marble, the most beautiful you can imagine. That beautiful, warm, living object looked so fragile, so delicate, that if you touched it with a finger it would crumble and fall apart. Seeing this has to change a man.” — James B. Irwin, Apollo 15
“I think the one overwhelming emotion that we had was when we saw the earth rising in the distance over the lunar landscape . . . It makes us realize that we all do exist on one small globe. For from 230,000 miles away it really is a small planet.” — Frank Borman, Apollo 8
“It’s tiny out there… it’s inconsequential. It’s ironic that we had come to study the Moon and it was really discovering the Earth.” — Bill Anders, Apollo 8
“It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.” — Neil Armstrong
I suppose nobody has ever felt smaller than those who have been into space and looked back at our planet. But while looking at the sea or a massive chair might imbue you with a sense of majesty at the abilities of both Mother Nature and man, this surely is a different feeling. To be able to see your planet and everything you’ve ever known hanging there, like a conker waiting to be smashed? Armstrong’s awe must have been laced with a fair dose of helplessness. While David Bowie’s Space Oddity wasn’t written about the moon landings, on reading Armstrong’s quote I couldn’t help thinking of the line: ‘Planet Earth is blue, and there’s nothing I can do.’
(If you want a nice long dose of feeling infinitesimal, I’d recommend watching In The Shadow of the Moon, the 2008 documentary which features interviews with NASA astronauts who went to the Moon. If you’re in the UK, it’s available on 4OD.)
I find that beyond pictures of the Earth, my mind is unable to latch onto most other space wonders in any meaningful way. I mean, how do you get your head around the fact that there are solar flares bigger than our planet? A centuries-long storm on Jupiter that is, again, bigger than Earth? That doesn’t make me feel small. It doesn’t make me feel anything, except thankful for Britain’s mercurial but considerably less life-threatening climate.
Do you like to feel small? What does it for you – skyscrapers? Stadiums? The Grand Canyon? I’m keen for new ways to get smallness hits.
I won’t bang on about it, but if you’re into football and you haven’t played it, downstall New Star Soccer into your device immediately (but not if you have exams or important stuff coming up – this thing will eat your life). It beat some big guns to win a BAFTA Games award earlier this year, in a victory pleasingly comparable to, say, Rotherham United beating Chelsea in the FA Cup final.
If you’ve played the game you’ll know there are elements of New Star Soccer that could be improved. And, like any good modern-day outfit, the company behind the game tends to ask for opinions/suggestions from users through sozialmedia. I happened to have some time on my hands, so I submitted my suggestions regarding incorporating players’ retirement age into the game on their Facebook page.
They were warmly received by the person behind the feed, who I believe is the game’s creator, Simon Read. I reproduce them here for posterity/royalties should they be taken up in the next update of the game.
They shield your feet, make you feel real neat
They cushion your shoes, take away the blues
With some buttons and thread, you can give them both heads
Need a holder for your phone? It’s already sewn
If you need to drain rice, a sock will suffice
Having grapes for lunch? A sock can carry a bunch
Put one on each ear, winter holds no fear
Absorb your tears when you weep, as you go to sleep
Into #longreads? Check out my Google+ community, Non-Fiction Addiction
The best thing about the Christmas/New Year period is All The Lists. Lists lists lists. Lists. (Children may feel otherwise, but what do they know.)
I love browsing end of year lists. It’s a great way to catch up on stuff you missed, and it fills those somnolent post-turkey holiday days like a charm. Whether the lists are in newspapers, mags, blogs… Best books, best gadgets, best songs, worst songs, worst pop-up restaurants where you can’t reserve a table and the queuing system amounts to ‘elbow a fellow aspiring diner in the trachea to get a whiff of hipster-fried chicken’ (Wishbone Chicken Brixton, you are death); yes, I love all the lists.
In bygone years I tended to create sprawling music playlists. A top ten of the year was no good. It always needed to be comprehensive, unwieldy and, ideally, drive me to the brink of insanity while I compiled it (example: my Best Of 2010 Spotify playlist features 192 tracks). You know you’ve made a good fist at a list if the mere thought of trying to fulfil your original vision makes you want to cry.
Which brings me to my 2012 end of year list. As I’ve babbled previously, this year has seen my reading habits change significantly. I didn’t read many books (boo), but I did learn that I could send longform articles to my Kindle (yay). Since sending stuff to my Kindle creates a record of all such articles in my Amazon account, I figured it might be interesting (for me, if nobody else) to put everything I’d read this year into a list.
Sadly this only occurred to me in November, and since Amazon accounts only record text information as opposed to links, it meant I had to (I say ‘had to’):
1. Trawl all the way through my Amazon account
2. Copy the title of each article and/or its author
3. Paste this information into Google
4. Go to the source article link and copy the relevant info & URL
5. Paste this information into my list
Now, it might not sound that arduous. But by the time I’d finished compiling my list of Every Article I Read On My Kindle In 2012, it was 457 items long. That’s a whole lot of copying and pasting, and I’d say it’s easily the most boring way to spend time I’ve yet devised. It really cut into my Christmas shopping efforts, too (this year everyone will get a Keep Calm And Carry On tea towel and be happy with it).
This list may be something people like to browse through. I hope so, given the time I spent on it. But when I got the idea I think my main motivation was this: I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone do this before. Why would they? It’s insane, and people have lives. So while it would almost certainly have been generally more useful to create a ‘Best of 2012′ list, I figured people like Longreads and Longform.org have that covered.
So my list is unfocused, wide-ranging and includes articles from before 2012. The oldest was published in 1869, but the majority are from 2000 onwards. It’s all non-fiction, and it paints a picture of a reader who is variously interested in, among other things, Scientology, serial killers, Bill Murray, paperclips, pornstars, Carly Rae Jepson, magic, Reddit, David Sedaris, con artists and the Olympics.
If you take a look at it and find something that piques your interest, I hope you’ll share it with others. It might make my RSI worth it.
A mention for the places where I tended to find all these links, and which I continue to browse regularly:
— hollyjunesmith (@hollyjunesmith) February 3, 2013
It’s difficult to justify eschewing social engagements just because 22 strangers are kicking a ball around on a field thousands of miles away, or because an array of non-British women are about to jump over a collection of hurdles (literal hurdles mind, not puny figurative ones).
It’s irrational, really. But if you’ve looked forward to the big sporting tournaments for your whole life, it’s a difficult thing to just turn off. That’s why I virtually disappeared during Euro 2012 and have gone to ground during the Olympics.
Sport was a huge part of my childhood. I played football, but my obsession was about more than the thrill of scoring the odd goal, and it was about more than just watching. To me, it presented an alternate universe as compelling as the likes of Star Wars.
I read and re-read books full of football statistics. I read and re-read and re-read an ITV Sport-produced tome about the history of the Olympics (football and athletics were – and remain – my favourites).
I drew pictures of goals being scored. You know those playbook-style diagrams you see in newspapers, where they illustrate the movement of the ball leading up to a goal? I was drawing those – loads of them, uselessly illustrated using colouring pencils and felt-tips – on a daily basis. I used Star Wars figures as footballers, kicking a Subbuteo ball around on the carpet and trying to score past my brother who would be holding Darth Vader as a goalkeeper (Subbuteo itself was always too frustrating for us, so we invented our own, more free-flowing variation).
I watched and re-watched videos of league goals and, in the absence of any other useful information filling up my brain, knew the home and away score for every match, for every team, throughout the season. You could have asked me what the score was for, say, Everton v. Derby 6 months ago, and I would know. I would also know who scored all the goals.
When I think about the time I now spend commuting, ironing, washing dishes, cooking, socialising… all of this time, when I was a kid, was spent obsessing over sport. There was nothing, nothing more exciting than the prospect of a new World Cup, European Championships, FA Cup or Olympic Games. So actually, I think I’ve done pretty well to emerge from such an all-consuming obsession a relatively well-rounded human being. Sure, I spent, cumulatively, a full 24 hours watching football during the opening week of Euro 2012 – but at least I still made it into work and somehow managed to feed myself (with awful, unnaturally-hued food – but no matter).
Of late I’ve been thinking about what sport taught me during my formative years. I’m not talking about ‘teamwork’ and ‘determination’, or any of that life-lesson pishposh. I’m talking about practical, tangible, how-do-you-spell-Mönchengladbach general knowledge. Because following football means more than just watching a ball being kicked around, and the Olympics is about more than chucking a stick into a field.
There’s always a context there, and it’s from these contexts that I think my childhood education was actually improved by sport. I’m not saying I learned more than I did in school, but my awareness and knowledge of the world was definitely enhanced. Not with semi-ironic stuff like the fact that, ha ha, the Germans never miss penalties – I mean actual, semi-useful facts and figures.
I’ve had a bit of a think about this, and here’s some of the stuff I learned as a result of being a sports-nerdlinger child.