3 February 2013


Sunday lunchtime at Selfridges. It's fair to say that this is not my usual haunt. But I had my reasons. Reasons in addition to fantasising about my other life as a window dresser (though the true high-fliers for this fantasy are of course Liberty and Fortnum & Mason). I was popping in for a talk on Ancient Greek Philosophy.

Tracking my course through the wondrous gluttonous food hall, picking at tasters of pumpernickel and fruit breads on the way (I may have also left via this route, scoffing more bread as I fled), weaving between the fragrant, dazzling perfume and make-up counters, trying not to crash into meticulously displayed crockery in the homeware section, I eventually made it down to the basement. Books on Lower Ground. It's not my idea of the perfect bookshop, but I was not there to browse. Selfridges have introduced a concept called No Noise for January and February. 'We invite you to celebrate the power of quiet, see the beauty in function and find calm among the crowds.' So there you go. This means that they have a Silence Room, an idea apparently dreamt up by Harry Gordon Selfridge himself in 1909, a Quiet Shop which sells de-branded products such as Marmite and Heinz Baked Beans without the logos (oddly surreal), and Idle Sundays when the public can come and listen to a series of talks put on by the Idler Academy.

They vary in topic, from fishing to cloud spotting to moonlight... I wish I had been available last Sunday for the talk entitled 'The Poetry of Silence, featuring readings from my main man Keats and additional Romantic poets. Alas, I was otherwise engaged, settled on the sofa watching the whole BBC series of Pride & Prejudice back-to-back in celebration of the novel's 200th anniversary. Jane Austen and Colin Firth unfortunately had to take priority. However, I was ready and willing to hit 'Aristotle, Epicurus and the Vita Contemplativa' with Dr Mark Vernon.

At first it felt rather absurd and ironic to be listening about the contemplation of silence in the middle of one of the busiest and flashiest stores on Oxford Street, one of the most crowded and stressful streets in the world. Especially when the tannoy/alarm thing kept going off at intervals right next to where we (a motley crew of curious beings) were all gathered. But then it kind of made sense. It's about finding the time to stop, contemplate, reason and feel when in the midst of living life. It's about looking over your shoulder at the silence that always lies just behind us and letting it push and nudge you further into knowledge rather than a vacuous ignorance. Or something.

Very odd. Photo from selfridges.com.
I was all set to just listen and absorb as the talk began, feeling a little sceptical of the whole thing. But then we had to participate in some audience interaction. Fateful words. Even more so when out of place among the clientele of Selfridges. We were asked to pair up and simply ask our partner 'Who are you?' Over and over. Quickfire, with short, sharp answers. It became more difficult and awkward and invasive as the unrelenting question persisted. My partner was a rather lovely old woman with wispy hair on her head, top-lip and chin, who answered with 'searcher' and 'traveller' and 'open'. I was less philosophical, more stuttery. The lecturer eventually put us out of our misery - before we could have nervous breakdowns about finding ourselves and knowing our souls - and I did actually LEARN THINGS.

Stoics are so called because Zeno taught philosophy at the Stoa Poikile, a colonnade overlooking the Agora. Philosophy in the marketplace, among the lettuces. Socrates also taught in open public places (which some people found irritating, hence the death sentence), and Aristotle thought we should take time to share the salt together. I guess he meant sit down and literally share a meal, conversation and points of view with each other, but also the saltiness of things, the bite, the tang, the questions in life that add flavour. So, with that in mind, I went and tasted some more pumpernickel bread and went off to the Jeurgen Teller exhibition at the ICA to look at lots of bright fleshy commercial photographs of naked bodies.

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