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Tuesday, 4 February 2003

Richard Cooper's 2003 Hoban Adventure 10/28


Hammersmith Tube Station

When I got back to Hammersmith Tube station I was distracted from getting straight onto the train for my next stop by the unmistakable, and for me irresistible, odour of toasting bread coming from somewhere inside the shopping arcade. I was in the mood for elevenses, even if wasn’t quite that time yet, so I followed my nose and it led me to Oi! Bagel. Appearances can be deceptive; although I knew the smell of toast well, the Oi! Bagel counter was full of untoasted bagels with savoury fillings not quite up my street. Behind the counter were two women in the uniform of their trade. One of them asked if she could help me. She had a badge with her name and the title DUTY MANAGER; she should know her bagels, I thought. “Have you got marmalade or jam or something like that?” I said desperately. “We’ve got everything,” she sighed, as if having everything was proving to be something of a burden. I ordered a toasted bagel with marmalade which came cut into C-shaped segments and wrapped in an impressively compact cardboard-and-tissue affair. "Have a nice day!" said the duty manager in true New York-out-of-Turnham Green style. I devoured it sitting on a metal bench opposite Claire’s Accessories while the bank bloke in his Next suit continued to struggle to erect his promotional display.

While I waited for the train at Hammersmith to take me to South Kensington, I fingered the sheaf of quotes in my bag and found one I’d chosen with no particular destination in mind – yellow paper suitable, as it were, for dissemination anywhere in the capital. They all were, of course, but I’d chosen some which were more random than others to drop in the truly free-minded spirit of SA4QE. This quote – another of Sarah Varley’s from The Bat Tattoo, about her husband, to whom she was attracted partly because she could see in him someone she could improve and work on – interested me for two reasons: firstly because its philosophical attitude might give a stranger some reassurance, and secondly because I regularly ponder the dilemma myself of whether to change/improve/work on someone or something or simply let he/she/it be him/her/itself. Most of the time I let it go, being a generally non-confrontational or interventionist kind of a guy and usually deeply suspicious of people who thrust strong opinions in people's faces. Sometimes however things come to a head and I get frustrated wondering how long it’s possible to go through life trying so hard not to leave your mark on it. There is obviously a balance to be struck here, but I often feel I’m “tip-toeing around the edges of myself”, as Ted Hughes once put it. Of course, leaving literary quotes in public places was itself an interventionist act, even if when it came to the crunch I resisted being quite as direct about it as I could have been. And certainly, I told myself, with the amount of walking I was doing today, nobody could seriously accuse me of tip-toeing anywhere.

The platform was draughty and the quote wouldn’t stay underneath the public phone, so I wandered into the enclosed waiting room, sat down, read the quote, and then when my train came left it nonchalantly on the seat beside me. I boarded the train quickly, as if I were committing some nefarious act. In the waiting room there had been an old lady sitting opposite me. I looked back from the train to see if she would pick up the yellow paper out of curiosity. She didn’t.

Next stop

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