How to sit

I see many people in my office, as I guess many of us who are in business are apt to do, and of late I have taken to observing how they sit when they come in to share a tea or coffee, or when they wish to pay a bill or indeed sign up for one of our various services.

In fact although I have never seen it done, I feel sure that with adequate resources one could prepare a detailed projection of a visitor’s personality just from the way that person sits on a chair.

There are, for example, people who come in and sit on the extreme edge of a chair.  These are people who appear to be geared up for instant flight, perhaps fearing that I am about to attack them with a blunt instrument or that the roof of my office is about to fall in.  I can assure you that neither has ever happened, but for these good folk this is seemingly always an option to be born in mind.

Then there are people who wallow in the chair, leaning back as if this were their office and not mine, as if perhaps they were settling in for a long natter about the state of the economies of North Africa and the funding difficulties being experienced by the NASA team who are trying to build a space ship that will land on one of the moons of Saturn.

Occasionally however, and I do mean just occasionally, I meet people who sit on a chair with what I think I may best call unstudied self-confidence.

These are the people I warm to. They have summed up the place and settled into it in a wholly appropriate manner, feeling it is ok to sit and natter for a moment or two, but giving the impression that they fully recognise that this is my territory and not theirs, and that I’m the one calling the shots over what is to be discussed and indeed when the meeting is over.

I don’t mean by any of this that my office has a strict etiquette to be used when entertaining customers. They are after all the customers, and if they wish to swing back on the chair or perch on the edge ready for flight, that is a matter for them.  Thus I certainly don’t go around telling people how to sit.  Rather I mean to say that I am simply observing and putting together a few thoughts.

And these thoughts do have a purpose, for they allow me to make a fair guess as to whether my visitor is likely to run off as soon as the coffee is consumed or will settle back with a look that says, “a second cup would be nice, any time when you are ready to make one.”

In these circumstances I tend to let the customer speak, if the customer so wishes of course (for I learned long ago never to push a customer, but rather to let the customer take his or her own course).

But if it should turn out we are sitting there, with my customer either perched on the very front of the chair nervously eyeing the door, or alternatively leaning back and taking in the ceiling wondering perhaps if it once upon a time it contained a fresco which if only it could be uncovered would be worth a few quid, but with not a word being said, I fill the gap by asking, “Where do you come from originally.”

Now that might seem a bit pushy, and I should stress I only use this ploy in extremis as it were, but it does help to get things a-moving.  The customer might answer “London” or “Great Wassington in the Glen” or “Ethiopia” or anything else, and in almost all cases it allows me to ask a question or two.

Quite what turn that conversation might take depends, of course, on the answer.  If it is London one can always ask which part, because Londoners are generally very fond of their district within the metropolis and will tell you of its past glories and how the decline only started once they moved out.

If the answer is Great Wassington or some other hamlet one has never heard of, one can say, “That sounds beautiful – idyllic even – what’s it like?” and they will chatter on a bit without one having to say anything.

As for any foreign land, one can ask if they were born there, and if so, “what’s it like these days,” because in my experience all foreign places have a “past” and a situation “these days” which is quite different.

And there we are.  Without the need to think any further and without any need to construct more than a couple of basic sentences I have the conversation sown up.  The visitor does the talking, and inevitably therefore feels it was a jolly good conversation, while I’ve had a nice sit down.

When the visitor pauses for breath I can say, “Well I must push on with the work…” and the visitor invariably apologises for taking up so much of my time.  Thus feeling guilty he or she will continue to use my storage services, knowing in a way that they can’t quite put into words that I am a jolly good egg.

And thus the wheels of business are once more oiled.

The disturbing trilogy: should one keep reading and risk being disturbed further – or just stop?

Over Christmas a friend of mine finished reading a series of books that he had started back in the summer of last year. It is known as the “Southern Reach trilogy”.

I knew he was reading the series of books because he had mentioned them to me several times and had kept me abreast of his own interaction with the books.

And he revealed to me, as we had one of those get togethers that seems to occur part way between the Yuletide guests going home and the final knees-up on New Years Eve, that the delay in completion of his reading was nothing to do with the size of the volumes, nor his speed of taking in English prose, but rather the feelings of discomfort he had on concluding the first volume.

Indeed such was his uncertainty about what he had just read that having completed his perusal of volume 1 he set it aside quite unsure if he actually wanted to continue.

Now I must admit that by this time I had something of a vested interest in the piece, for he had kept me abreast of developments as he read the book, and I must say that I for one was disappointed that he didn’t want to go on. I wanted to hear how it turned out.

The problem was that although he also wanted to know what happened next, he found the whole thing very unsettling. However with a little prodding from me he did indeed decide to buy part two but with the resolution firmly in place that if it troubled him as much as the first volume, he would stop and give both volumes either to the local charity shop, or to me. If the latter was his decision I was to give him a quick resume when I had read the books through.

But, as luck would have it, my pal found volume two utterly gripping, devouring it in two days and moving straight onto the third and final volume (you will recall that I mentioned above that it was a trilogy), reading it at the first opportunity.

However this time it turned out that the volume combined both the attributes of volumes one and two. It was, he told me, unputdownable and thoroughly disturbing.

There was not too much my friend would say while he was reading volume three, but when he had finished I saw that something was seriously wrong. Indeed when I put the point to him, he admitted that he was getting strange looks, and his customers and friends at work were giving him quizzical glances.

Of course I offered sympathy, understanding and, upon neither of those helping the situation, an admonishment along the lines of the need to “pull yourself together quickly”. “You can’t be ridden asunder by a novel,” I told him.

There then followed a prolonged debate on the exact meaning of being ridden asunder and whether it could be used in relation to a paperback trilogy, but eventually we settled down into some pondering as to what it was within the three books that had both entrapped and disturbed him so much.

The “Southern Reach” story I should explain, centres on a part of the USA within which suddenly becomes unreachable from the rest of the country, save through a single tunnel. Most of those people who do go through and subsequently come back, come back seriously ill, either mentally, physically or both.

Ultimately it appears that the cause of the problem is that some sort of alien life form has landed in the area, but – and this is what makes the whole thing so disturbing – it is not a life form that looks or behaves in any sort of way we can recognise or understand.

I can’t tell you what happens in case you want to read the book, but the point is that this is an alien or set of aliens as far from the creatures of Star Trek or Star Wars that you could imagine – and then some. We cannot understand what they are, what they want, or why they want it. As such we have no way of knowing anything about them or their motives or desires. They don’t share our behaviour, our morality, our anything. There is no connection.

Finding out about the book and seeing how the series affected my friend was fascinating – as were the comments made by readers on the on-line store from which he bought the books. The story was found to be either “rubbish” or “extraordinary but disturbing”.

I’ve thought about this a lot in recent weeks; how some people can be deeply moved by a set of books while others just dismiss them in a few lines as nonsense. How something could be so different from anything we know that there is no point of understanding possible.

I mean we can understand an ant eater and a tree because they are life forms that operate according to our vision of what life does. But what about when we move beyond that?

And then I wondered: supposing an alien came and saw the Admiral storage service. Would they be able to understand what is going on?

In the end I thought quite possibly not, which is perhaps a bit sad.

But at least it means there’s no point in advertising in the Western Spiral Arm of the Milky Way, so that saves a bit of money I guess.