We’ve used our large brains to set ourselves apart from nature. We’ve codified our basic drives into mythologies and moralities; we’ve suppressed, denied or camouflaged our animal instincts; we’ve set ourselves apart not just from nature but also from our own natures. Asked what they regret, the dying don’t proverbially regret not getting more large-brain activity. It’s not more time in the office that they wish they’d spent. It’s more time with their partner, family and friends; more time at home; more time having sex.
Home range. In the Star Wars galaxy and others like it, there are bars, typically with live music, where you can find fast spaceships, ace pilots, drinks with smoke coming off the top, and let’s not forget the spectacularly varied clientele. Sometimes, in those bars, you see a customer wearing breathing equipment, maybe even a space-suit. They’re breaking their journey, let’s assume, in a hostile environment. We’re a bit like that on our own planet. We have no idea what’s going on around us. I noticed the female blackbird the other day, beak full of worms, waiting for me to go back inside before delivering lunch to her family.
This isn’t a journey. This is home. In my “home range”, there’s a multiplicity of intersecting worlds, some of them human. Out back, the robin is defending his territory against all comers – other robins, anyway. I wonder if he has any reciprocal sense that I regard my garden as my territory. Out front, a bench is being painted and garden furniture arranged in a clearly demarcated territory. I remember looking up at a hawk once, a big one, and thinking: he sees me, but he dismisses me as prey because I’m too big to lift. And then I thought: he doesn’t dismiss me because I’m human and somehow exempt.
Wouldn’t happen to a human being. We’re part of this. But we’re not. I remember in the film The Fly (1986, the David Cronenberg remake), Jeff Goldblum refers to “insect politics”. That’s a real thing, in a sense. Every now and then, I get caught by a television programme called The Secret Life of the Zoo, in which young zookeepers discuss the personalities, interactions and sexual activities of captive animals. The big question, every time I tune in, seems to be whether or not the resident male is going to mate with any of the females now being added to his tank, cage or enclosure. “How very different from the home life of our own dear Queen,” as a lady-in-Waiting to Queen Victoria said after seeing a performance of Anthony and Cleopatra. How very different from my – never mind.
In our dystopias, we do harm to the world. If they’re made in America, the human spirit triumphs. World disintegrates, popular virtues prevail, man kisses woman, credits roll. But our core mythologies – right back to, for example, the Garden of Eden – are about living on equal terms with animals – sorry, other animals – and indeed plants. Knowledge is the fruit of a tree. From Genesis to Snow White and beyond, apples are dangerous. I can go down to the beach and look out over a sea that is teeming with carrier bags and tiny pieces of plastic, and not see any of them. Sorry, I meant to say “teeming with fish”, but I suppose we have at least made the ocean in our own image.
Atlantis. We’re not really here, are we? We haven’t established ourselves. And we know, deep down, what’s going to happen. The dinosaurs lasted for 170 million years. We’ve been around for about five minutes. Our founding mythologies are about living with nature, but so many of the stories we tell ourselves these days – from The Day After Tomorrow (2004), say, to World War Z (2013) via, oh, Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) and maybe The Road (2009) – are about near-extinction. So’s most of the broadcast news, really; the same weighing-up of the prospects for catastrophe.
Curious to think that one day, the European Union might attain the mythical status of Atlantis. Was there really such a civilisation? But if you consider that wood, paper, digital storage, metal all decay over time, the real puzzle will be: who were these weirdos? There was once “a widely scattered archaeological culture of prehistoric western and Central Europe, starting in the late Neolithic or Chalcolithic and running into the early Bronze Age” (Wikipedia) that left behind absolutely nothing except a collection of beakers – they’re known to us as The Beaker People.
Given the durability (not) of all our achievements, we’re going to enter the archaeological record as The Plastic Bag People, aren’t we?
*Always had a soft spot for David Bowie’s “Heroes”.
The brief to the designer of this space probably talked about being “accessible” and “inclusive” and perhaps even “friendly”. The word “community” probably appeared more than once, and possibly the phrase “heart of the community”. On screens on the walls, the bank’s TV ad runs constantly, so you’re being smiled at while you wait (it’s not the one with the horses). There are mirrors in lifts because apparently you panic less if you’re stuck in a box where you can see yourself. Similar principle with the smiling TV screens, I guess.
Just saying. But there’s never anybody in the branch except the queue at lunchtimes and other peak-convenient times. You stand in the queue and think about what this space could be, if it was used as it’s designed to look as though it’s being used. Make it available to mother-and-toddler groups? Let a lunchtime book group meet here, maybe? Waterstone’s in Truro used to have (probably still has) story-time in the children’s department – a member of staff sitting cross-legged on the floor and reading, say, Julia Donaldson’s The Gruffalo (1999, Macmillan) to toddlers and their parents (usually mothers).
And no, there was no actual need to buy the book afterwards, although perhaps toddler-pressure might have been applied. Once, many years ago, I was given lunch by the manager of Harrods Bank***. Lunch in the store. We talked about the yield on floor space given over to banking, and the yield on floor space given over to selling teddy bears. I suppose if my local bank branch wanted to diversify into the heart of the community, letting the toddlers bring their teddy bears, and bringing in some sample toys from the store across the road, might be a start.
Put out a coffee machine. Not so long ago, in one of my own photographs here, I spotted my copy of Paco Underhill’s Why We Buy (1999, Orion Business). About making people feel comfortable enough to buy in stores and retail spaces. Must read it again – where was I? Oh yes. Got to the counter. Had the usual Q&A about electronic payments being more efficient than cheques. Then the usual Q&A about the savings account they could offer me. Paid in my cheque. Walked away from the island thinking about all the conversations – like the one with the doctor about healthy eating and exercise – that are delivered with no sense that, y’know, might have heard it all before.
No, ma’am, it has never occurred to me that electronic banking might be more efficient than carrying this cheque around. I could sit in my armchair and never get any exercise at all. Emerged into the sunshine, thought briefly about the levels of authorisation that branch would need to open up its space to the community, and got on with my life. Some large organisations just congeal into irrelevance, don’t they? Went home, pruned my roses in the manner suggested by the man in St Agnes, made tea. If you go to St Agnes, don’t miss the roses in Chegwyn Gardens. Really don't.
If you want to know, just ask me. Then, first thing this morning, an email arrived. From the bank. Subject line: We welcome your feedback. Heading on the content: We value your opinion. Okay. “Dear William Essex,” it begins. Almost like it’s programmed to use Fname, Lname, like a Mailchimp send-out. You should understand that I’ve had this account since I was fourteen. I don’t use it much, but the branch is handy for the occasional cheques that still arrive. [If you’re here from Facebook: irony; humour. Yes, I am aware of online/electronic banking.]
“We’re dedicated to making our customer experience the best it can be,” said this automated missive from the bank that I’ve known since I first said “Hello Uncle Bedford” to the branch manager who had come to our house to discuss some business thing with my father. A long time ago. Mr Bedford. I was a lot younger than fourteen when he and I were first introduced. A bit hazy on family and other relationships. Uncle Bedford.
The thing from Mailchimp – sorry, the bank – refers to “our” customer experience, but I’m pretty sure they mean “your” – in the sense, mine (no slip there, Professor Freud). “We will combine your feedback with our customer records to better understand how to improve the service we provide.”
It’s got these darling little ATMs. Jolly good. They’ve got people coming into their branches, joining the peak-time queues, standing idle for perhaps ten minutes on their turf, and what they want to do is combine my post-visit tick-boxes with my past transactional history to work out how to improve – what? Will there be an “other” box where I can put “hire more staff to reduce queues” or even “open up your spaces to mother-and-toddler groups”? These questionnaires are so often a distancing mechanism, aren’t they? Sitting behind the scenes adding up responses to the questions you’ve chosen to ask is safe by comparison with talking to unpredictable customers.
It’s not even that, actually. “Based on your recent experience in branch, how likely are you to recommend [bank name redacted] to a friend or family member?” What? Leave out “in branch”, which is reminiscent of “in country”, which is a term I associate with the Vietnam War. [In Country. Film 1989.] Just what kinds of conversation do you think I have with friends and family? “Oh, by the way, I really recommend this out-of-the-way little bank branch I’ve found.” Those sentences have to have a second half. If it’s a café, it’s the coffee, or the tapas, or … and if it’s a bank branch, it’s the, er, emptiness, maybe?
“Please give your answer on a scale where ‘0’ means ‘not at all likely’ and ‘10’ means ‘extremely likely’.” Janice Nicholls, where are you now? Anybody here remember the TV show Juke Box Jury? Janice Nicholls’ catchphrase was, “I’ll give it five.” So’s mine, when I bother to complete these things.
*Younger readers. Like an online payment, but printed on paper. You have to take it into a bank to activate it.
**And you can both pretend that this is somehow different from walking up to the little island and asking the other woman (usually a woman) to do your banking for you. I think I’m supposed to take the hint and do this for myself in future, but they’re pleasant young people.
***I ate a lot of lunch in that job.