I like conversations. I would rather listen to people exchange ideas than hear an argument. I suspect civility has a lot of fans but being more polite and respectful keep that particular thought to themselves. Context is easier to establish with time. In a world where a story needs to be told on the news in thirty seconds or less, or be compressed into 140 characters or less, a conversation is that rare thing, a part of life that can’t be lengthened or shortened beyond its natural length as determined by both parties. I like talking to people. I have spent pretty much all of my working life being paid to talk to people. For a living. There are times I can’t shut up and times when I feel too timid to venture forth a thought. Listening, though, is a rare pleasure, especially when the focus of your attention is doing more than demanding it out of politeness, rather their words are the centre of the world. I am lucky that while I don’t know that many people, I know a few very interesting people who can hold a conversation.
In my working life so far, I have learned how to talk to people, something I have struggled with in some parts of my life for a long time. Sometimes I have to talk to groups of children and the best bit of the whole affair is when it becomes a conversation, when it is more than me blethering at them. The same happened when I used to work in museums and tours could end up talking about Northumberland or something other than what I was paid to talk about. And that was fine. A lot of people don’t want a finely packaged day, compartmentalised with each topic put in its place. Going a little off-topic makes things more interesting, more spontaneous. It is also where I feel most comfortable. I hate being too scripted. I may say things I prepare and I might say the same things a lot but not necessarily the same way, in the same words. I remember having job interviews where I felt tongue-tied because I was trying to keep to the script and ones when I left feeling energised because it had become a conversation and I came up with stuff that hadn’t been planned nor calculated to impress. (I don’t do calculated impressiveness. If it comes at all, it is invariably plucked from somewhere, usually thin air or some synapses in my brain just melding together to form some thought.)
I remember once being at an art launch. I was working at it and had been talking to one of the artists about his work, which involved wax printing, as I recall. One of my bosses (who I don’t work for now) came up to me and we got to talking about this work and the artist joined the conversation. Afterwards my boss came up to me and said I was really good in that situation. I was mortified because I was just doing my job, basically yakking to someone in a professional guise. I was having fun and getting paid for it.
Thinking about conversation was prompted by reading the autobiography of the comedian and talk-show host Craig Ferguson, whose show in America, The Late Late Show (now hosted by James Corden), was based on just having a blether with his guests rather than being too scripted and plastic. I have been watching clips of Craig Ferguson on YouTube the last week or so, after seeing him interviewing a good pal of his, Billy Connolly. It was just two guys having a chat but on the telly and it was far better, civilised and funny than anything else you would find on TV. Some of his interviews with actresses are very flirty but they genuinely seem like two people talking rather than just another PR-heavy interview, one of many.
I haven’t told anyone this before but if I ever became a broadcaster, I would present Desert Island Discs or some other show based primarily on an interview with a single person where you could get in-depth with them and talk about life, the universe and everything. Or if I could, I would adopt an idea I’ve heard about of a human library, where you gather some people in a room and you can borrow them briefly and just hear their story. I would love to do that but I am not sure how. People are endlessly interesting and have many hidden depths. Those are more interesting than the superficial shite that so often pervades our lives and discourse. It’s why obituaries are often the most interesting parts of the newspapers and why I often wonder why we don’t celebrate people more when they’re alive. If I have any spiritual belief at all, it is a faith in the power of humanity for good and to make life interesting. Sometimes it’s hard. What would life be without a challenge? It can be a little easier, it should be easier for a lot of people to survive, let alone find some sort of contentment. But ultimately we succeed. And we need to hear different perspectives and stories from people who have seen parts of the world and experienced things not many others have. It’s why I work with the public and find each day interesting with them, even if there are days when it isn’t always rosy. There are always compensations when there are conversations to be had, though.
To try and encapsulate that, to finish, here’s a quote from the great Nan Shepherd, from Writer’s Court in Edinburgh. Read The Living Mountain, if you can. You’ll be glad you did.