Prose-Ode to Waterstones Café, York Minster and a Couple of Streets
I’m sitting upstairs in Waterstones café and trying to switch myself on – slot into gear, slide into alignment – but the dear old brain is too full of mush.
I’ve already chatted with the cheery folk behind the counter, bantered about their tattoos, bought an overly virtuous falafel-and-hummus wrap, swept crumbs from a table, sat down with my tray, stared with brain-clenching determination at the cappuccino.
But no gear has yet been slotted into, no alignment arrived at.
I could try checking my phone for sports news, always good for a semi-irritated time-waste. But that would take me away from – what? – the big slow Okay; the great All-is-Well; the Nugget at the Centre; in a word, Oomph.
So what else can I try? Well, some Books Of The Month seem to be nodding and winking in their box-shelf displays. There’s an idea. If you want to wake up, a bookshop ought to be prime territory. Lots of switched-on minds captured between covers of books – lasso, swoop, splat – and stretched out on the pages.
All those novels haunted-by-death, haunted-by-life; all those non-fictions rippling with questions, bulging with info. Sipping my drink, I envisage the hordes of them, ranged on their shelves, spread on their display racks, basking on buy-one-get-one-half-price tables.
But I can’t read yet. Too much sludge on the brain.
Focus on the café, then. Seventeen tables and – mm, let’s count the punters – dun-dun-dun – fifteen. Let’s see: a young mum has got her baby in a front sling while she chats with a pal across the table – head tilts to baby, head tilts to pal. Further along there’s a laptop caresser, with side-shaved head and multicolour bob on top – is she a dissertation drafter, I wonder, or masterpiece wannabee? – well, good luck either way. Over there, a lean-forward talker (check shirt, elbows on table) discourses at a pair of lean-back receivers (grey tops, elbows to the sides). Who else? An older bloke, suit-and-tie, sharp of face, is sitting like a resentful wedding guest as he peers through half-moon specs at – what? – ah, The Daily Telegraph. And, look, an older couple chuckling at each other – both with elbows on the table – in grey-haired, jacket’n’jeans bonhomie.
Sigh, what next? I could try scribbling this piece (interesting time-travel dilemma: have I already started, and, if not, how come I’ve got this far?)
But does it matter if I switch on or not? Fair question, which gets an even better answer, because – here’s the point – the world changes if witnessed through back-lit eyes. Beam your light out and everything becomes suddenly brighter. No need to get worked up any more (bye-bye Brexit); no need to get appalled (hey Trump, you’re a waft of passing wind).
But more than that, it’s an ethical force. When you see the world as beautiful, you treat it as beautiful – the great aesthetic switch from matter to morality – and that which is beautiful is loved. And that which is loved is served. People, creatures, the whole planet: beautiful, loved, served.
All of which brings us to the major problem of do I order another drink. (Can’t rush all this. Got to let it mellow.) Mm, let’s look around, check the décor. Pale lemon walls, wood-slat features – tell you what, try filling in the rest yourself. Call it a choose-your-own-décor café. Y’see, I’ve got to focus on this bigger problem of ordering another drink. (Cappuccino? – done that.) (Water? – done that too.) (Falafel and hummus wrap? – undergone that.) (How about tea? – possibly.)
There again – consider the alternative – I could skip the tea and head straight out, stride the streets, see if any Oomph is willing to stride along with me. See, there’s two ways of going with Mr Oomph. Sit still and be full.
Or stride out and be full.
We’ll try the stride in a mo, but let’s sit a while longer (with duly acquired pot of tea). You see, the more I contemplate the room – that is, the more attention I pump into it/out to it – the more it begins to buzz with fullness. Not a literal buzz, of course – not the chat of fifteen or so customers – no, not that. It’s like there’s so much energy in the air you can almost feel it – that sort of buzz – like it’s humming around your eyes, tingling around your ears.
Where does it come from, though?
Ah, here we enter the great mystery of Inner and Outer.
It’s like this: if I finally get to the Big Slow Okay, the great All is Well, the Nugget at the Centre, gather some Oomph – the effect can be truly metaphysical.
Did I ever tell you about the time Beethoven’s Fifth set a whole field on fire? On fire, I say. I’d stayed back at Uni one evening, listening through headphones to his Fifth Symphony (you know the one: bah-bah-bah boom!) and simultaneously I followed the whole thing in the score. Not missing a note. Not missing a cymbal tink. Hence – natural conclusion – the world became entirely Fifth Symphony, no room for anything other. Which was strange, cos I took a bus (a bus? what’s that?) to the Halls of Residence (Halls? Halls?), and the stop was by some fields (what’re they?)
Well, I can answer the last query. They were great green acres of fire, that’s what they were. Except not green at all. They were flame orange. Or green, overlaid with flame. Or green in this world, and flame in another. But – here’s the point – the other world was winning. Those fields were thoroughly on fire. Resonating with Mr Beethoven’s ferocity.
And that, my friends, is how you have visions. Fill up the Inner World, and the Outer World gets overlaid.
There’s more, there’s lots more to say. I haven’t even started on Wordsworth. Haven’t even started on Quality (and its fragmented accomplice, Quantity). Haven’t even started on the two basic premises (Is mind an emergent property of matter? Or matter an emergent property of mind?)
But that’s enough for now. It’s time for the walk. Finish the tea (got three and a half cups out of that pot!). Cheerio caff staff (oh, it’s last day for one of them – “Happy Lastday to you…”). Manoeuvre past the seventeen or so tables with the fifteen or so punters. Get out. Say hello to Mr Oomph. Or ask the blighter where he’s got to.
And I’m walking up Stonegate – with its gem-shops and clothes-shops and pie-shops and antique-shops – and, hey, the ground is bouncing up at me, people swerving before me, half-timbered frontages jumping at the sides, and the air, ah the air – it says a soft hello, breeze stroking my cheeks, gusts murmuring my ears. And way way above, the sunlight comes swarming down, rebounds off pavements, splatters my eyes.
And it’s like I’m swimming through liquid air – soft and surrounding. It holds me, holds all of us, parts before us, merges behind, makes all the people – Italian, Korean, whatever – sway and waver so my every straight-line motion is curved by their grace, their gravity.
And my shoulders relax till I feel the precise spot in the upper spine – that central point where angel wings would take root (if I should just happen to develop any). And the whole head-held-higher thing gets going. And I’m up, I’m flying. Feet on the ground, I’m flying.
Where to? Ah yes, the Minster.
Ah, the great long slow-down.
Ah, the entry desk and shuffle through.
Ah, the eventual, awesome stride through the Nave.
I choose a place to sit, somewhat as I might at Waterstones (though only somewhat) and it all comes teeming about me – the collected mentality of centuries. Here, if anywhere, is the fusion of inner and outer. Those soaring limestone pillars, that cream-white ceiling, those surging arches and golden bosses – together they form a massive casket of thought, a great containing cranium, a silo of mind, filled firstly by medieval intensity and recharged over succeeding centuries. You can feel it, tingling in the side-aisles, burnishing in the stain glass, shimmering from the altar cloth and the stone-flower capitols and the candle niches and eagle-wing lectern.
And it isn’t so much the space above that overwhelms, but the concept of that space – a space gazed at by so many packages of consciousness that it starts to make our sight melt. And the more we melt, the more that ceiling – so cream-white and golden – begins to melt too, till the empyrean is almost there.
Breath stalls, ears ring, flesh goes into alternative mode – forgets itself, becomes something temporarily Other.
And I re-emerge on a city slowed down. Parliament Street, with its wide-spaced stores and tight-coppiced trees, becomes the setting for everyday miracle, the simple discovery that our ordinary world is far more than it habitually pretends. Click. The alias of grey mundanity fades and it expands to become the vastness and wonder it always was.
Every step is now a pulse on the Earth’s surface – my fingers shuffling as if to thicken the atmosphere, mouth muttering unheard syllables, eyes gazing thirty degrees above horizon level – to where the air swells and hypothetical other worlds hover in potential. And – maybe it’s the head-tilt, the neck pushed back on itself – but clouds at the end of the street pass like empires – pass, pass, and go – while behind them the eye-spangling blue transmutes to the wave-front of approaching revelation.
And the big questions dwindle away, the queries about Quality (and its fragmented accomplice, Quantity); the disputes over basic premises (Matter an emergent property of mind? Or mind an emergent property of matter?); even that vital final issue, Discarnate Survival – they answer themselves with a simple easy ‘Of course!’
And that, my friends, explains the transcendent merit of stopping for a cuppa at Waterstones. That, mes amis, tells you the prodigious benefits of a nice long chomp’n’ponder chillax. (Cappuccino? – tick.) (Water? – tick.) (Overly virtuous falafel and hummus wrap? – tick.) (Refillable pot of tea? – indeed.) And don’t forget to say cheers to the caff staff.