I’m not entirely sure that I know where to start – I just know I need to before the memories of the evening leave my head. I’m sitting on the train home from London at ten minutes to midnight. I will arrive at a town fairly-near home at somewhere close to 1am, and will then summon a taxi for the last few miles.
I can now lay claim to having attended a blogger “meetup”. Granted, there were only a few of us, but in a strange sort of way that seemed like a better thing to happen, because we really got to talk. It was still very, very strange, but in a good way (I think).
For me, it all began late in the afternoon, after catching a train towards London from my home town in the depths of “The Shire” – or so most people elsewhere in the world might think of it. I grabbed something to eat at Paddington railway station, and then continued on my way towards our eventual destination in Mayfair – a bar themed after “Phileas Fogg”, from the Jules Verne book “Around the World in 80 Days”. Only I got there an hour and a half early.
Thankfully I had done a little research before setting off, and knew a somewhat famous pub nestled on a road-end not far from “Fogg’s Residence” – quite appropriately titled (in a stereotypical style) “The Coach and Horses”. I bought a drink, found a table, and tried to think of something to do for an hour. I had my notebook with me, so set about emptying my head into the pages while sipping a pint of cider. Here’s the curious thing about sitting on your own with a notebook – you start to hear the conversations of others around you.
I quickly became aware of two girls sitting across the way that were obviously on a first date. They started out at opposite ends of a small table, and as time wore on, they edged closer to each other, eventually brushing hands, holding legs, and eventually touching fingers across the table. I couldn’t help grinning, and thinking about the various studies of human behaviour I had seen over the years. Perhaps we really are as predictable as everybody says.
While sitting in the bar, as each person pushed the doors open I wondered if it might be one of our gathering, and looked up hopefully. I think the bar staff became aware of this, and almost started a watch for me. It must be gut-wrenching for bar staff when they realise somebody has been stood up – and that’s probably what they thought was unfolding before them.
The clock eventually swept it’s hands towards 8pm and I pulled my coat on, and made my way to the kerb stones outside our collective “meeting point”. Even though I had already had a drink (to calm my own nerves), I will admit to freaking out just a little bit. I thought I should arrive first, so had been there for a few minutes when the first double-take happened. A pretty blonde lady strode from the darkness, and announced “you’re Jonathan, aren’t you”.
I don’t think our conversation could have been more awkward if we had tried, but we did our best, and before we knew it more faces emerged from the night – grinning, confirming we were who we thought we should be, and wondering what to do next. Ah yes. Mr Fogg.
While the top-hatted doorman checked our name on the guest list, I made a comment about him looking particularly serious. His face cracked into a grin, and he commented that everybody told him as much. I suppose in many ways I was just making conversation with anybody, because I tend to do that – everbody I knew invites me to parties because I’m kind of the opposite of a silence, and they know it. I will actively seek out that person that’s fallen from a conversation, and find something to talk about. I don’t think it’s necessarily about being inclusive, as much as recognising others that are as awkward as me.
How should I describe “Mr Fogg’s Residence” ? Imagine a movie set dressed to look like a private collection of ephemera from the adventures of a victorian explorer, and you’re getting somewhere near. Many years ago – before it was gutted and re-fitted – Oxford housed a wonderful museum called “Pitt Rivers” that contained endless shelves of curiosities. Imagine the private collection of Indiana Jones, if he hadn’t donated everything to Marcus Brody’s museum.
After ordering suitably exotic drinks from an esoteric menu, we nervously sat down, and started trying to figure out how to make conversation with people that already know almost everything about you. In the beginning it was really odd, but as time wore on we somehow relaxed into it, and remembered that we were the same people that we’ve shared so much with over the past few years.
In the blink of an eye two hours passed, and a waiter in period costume informed us that our time at Mr Fogg’s Residence was drawing to a close. We split the bill, and wandered out in the night air together – not wanting the night to end. Luckily, somebody had spent an hour in a bar just along the way earlier in the evening – cough – so knew exactly where to go next.
After finally saying goodbye to new friends, I left the gathering, called home, and began walking towards Oxford Circus underground station – a two hour journey ahead. While listening to the various conversations bouncing around the table earlier in the evening I had already decided to go for “Plan B” on the way home – I had already missed the last train, so would need to get a little bit creative.
While trying to focus on the display boards at Paddington a very neat gentleman in a blue raincoat struck up conversation with me – enquiring if I might have heard when the missing train to Didcot might make an appearance. I must have a sign on my head saying “this guy knows things”.
The train did arrive, finally. While rumbling quietly from Paddington towards home, I unfolded the laptop that had sat in my bag all night, and wrote – emptying my head – writing the words you’re reading. Before I knew it, a voice crackled from the overhead speakers that my station was approaching.
Only I wasn’t home yet, remember. I had missed the last train.
After following another late night traveller into the railway station car-park, I opened a waiting taxi door, and requested my destination from the driver. He didn’t seem to understand, and asked for my postcode. Given that I only live perhaps seven miles from the station, you can imagine my thoughts. As we drove through the darkness, I noticed him fighting with the sat-nav in the car, and failing miserably. Rather than belittle him in any way, I asked if he would like me to give him directions, and that’s how I got home – directing a panic stricken man that couldn’t work a mobile phone, and didn’t know where he was.
Of course I couldn’t let him suffer in silence, so struck up conversation during the last few miles of the journey – asking where he was from as an opening gambit. It turned out he was from Pakistan, and had moved here two years ago to live with his brother. They shared the taxi. He missed home terribly, but spoke in glowing terms about the safe environment he now lived – and how trusting, trustworthy, and polite everybody was. He talked all the way home, wrote his number on a receipt for me in case I might ever need a taxi again, and shook my hand while saying good night.
Perhaps it was a reminder that the world isn’t quite as bad as we might sometimes imagine.
Of course I had just spent the night proving that the world is actually rather wonderful, if only you take a chance or two. If not for taking a chance, I would not have spent the evening forging friendships with relative strangers. Quite wonderful strangers, but then not really strangers at all.
It’s a curious business – this blogging lark. You empty your head into the keyboard, and send your words off around the world. You don’t really think of the readers and fellow authors in terms of them being real, living, breathing people – or at least I don’t – or didn’t – until tonight.
Tonight the world got smaller. And a little more real.