Tuesday, 24 October 2006
Alex Horne – 24th October 2006
When we first came up with this idea we thought about filming the whole experience and making video diaries of our international quest. We also considered recording every moment on Minidisc and editing the highlights together to make some sort of ground-breaking radio series. But in the end we decided that approaching strangers with all sorts of recording paraphernalia would be just too off-putting. And we couldn't afford it.
As the first day of the experiment wore on, however, I was relieved we were the only ones able to witness our efforts for another much more profound reason. Owen and I were being pathetic.
Well, pathetic is maybe slightly too strong. We were reserved. Bashful. Inhibited. We weren't like those people you get on post-pub Friday night TV who run up to strangers on the street and get them to swear or take their clothes off. We were polite. This, we're led to believe, does not make good television.
But we were also cunning. In an attempt to avoid too many awkward confrontations with tricky or disinterested customers we very quickly devised ways to maximise our meeting potential and minimise our possible embarrassment. We took turns in approaching people. We only accosted people who looked like they had time on their hands. And we stopped very soon after lunch.
So after Carl from the Philippines and Iwona from Poland it was my turn again to waylay a foreigner. It was then that we came up with a particularly ingenious plan – we would find those people who have to carry those signs advertising, amongst other things, golf sales. These were people who were mostly from abroad and who would surely be glad to talk to someone through any medium other than a medium density fibreboard rectangle above their head.
Unfortunately, however, the plan was not perfect. The first guy we found was listening to headphones. This was an obstacle way too large for these two trepid explorers. We moved on. The next sign (for Subway – the American sandwich chain attempting successfully to overhaul our more simple bread culture) was being held up by a metal post – surely a demeaning sight for other professional and more human signboard carriers.
Finally we found a genuine person with ears unplugged, proudly telling men where they could have their hair cut for just ten pounds. It was my turn. I advanced. We got talking. And yes, he was interested, he would like to chat, he'd be happy to help. But no, would you believe it, the third stranger we'd been brave enough to tackle and the second person from Poland. To be honest, I think Darrick was just as disappointed as me and to really rub it in, it was Owen's go next and he immediately met a very nice man from Bangladesh carrying an arrow pointing to Pizza Hut.
There is a definite quality over quantity ethos to this project. Yes, we want to beat the Americans but not to the point of only approaching people holding signboards. So once Owen had got cricket-loving Rana's details I was back to my own board of the drawing variety.
It was a difficult hour. In between several failures, I asked the man eating lunch next to me in Leicester Square if I could ask him a question. He just stared at me, which I took as a yes. I asked him if he lived in London. He said no, which I took as a no. We also wandered round the so-bizarre-that-no-one-even-mentions-it Switzerland centre at the bottom of Wardour Street but were told by a very English builder that the Swiss had all moved. Why? Where? How? He didn't know.Finally, on our desperate way to the National Portrait Gallery, where we hoped to snag a bored security guard, I set eyes on the perfect candidate: an overly friendly young man handing out free career-advice magazines with such aplomb that he was out-flyering the entire herd of free London newspaper distributors next to him.
"I'll just get rid of these", he said in a distinctly exotic accent, pointing to his last three hundred copies of Londoncareersnet ("the magazine for those who work and play in London"). And twenty seconds later we were chatting.
Diego, a 21 year old Law student resident (I think that counts) is from Belgium – not quite as exotic as his voice or name suggested but a country outside Britain nevertheless. He was our fourth find and by far the most suspicious, unwilling to tell us his surname and only parting with his email address after our sheer incompetence convinced him that we can't have had any sort of authority.
What he was worried about being accused of I don't know. Tax avoidance? Perhaps. Murder? Unlikely. He has to work hard to pay for his Erasmus course and accommodation in London Bridge (in a flat, not under it, like a troll). As well as his studies and magazine dispersal job he also works in Exmouth Market on Saturdays, where he could well have sold me some cheese on a previous occasion. It all points to something to do with tax. And definitely not murder.
After a very pleasant chat about Brussels' fast food restaurants (I got engaged in the administrative capital of Europe a couple of years ago and while we did celebrate with some posh nosh, we still appreciated the culinary delight that is a Quick burger) we said goodbye to Diego and headed off in search of number five. I was relieved, not only that it was Owen's turn again, but because in the course of our conversation Diego had taught me his most valuable circulation secret: people don't mind random strangers talking to you in the street - as long as you're polite.