Monday, May 27, 2013

The Angel in the Detail



I parked my car at the supermarket the other day - centre of a row, sensibly parked, nothing to attract attention or mark it out from all the other cars.  I was in the middle of my shopping when i bumped into a policeman firend.  We chatted for a few minutes and then he said, 'Oh, by the way, I think you should change that tyre on the nearside front of your car.  The tread looks as if it's below the legal minimum at the edge and if you're picked up it's penalty points.'

I thanked him gratefully, not least for not shopping me there and then, but as I walked back to the offending car I marvelled at his powers of observation.  I don't believe he's seen me in that car more than a couple of times and yet he registered it as he passed and observed it closely enough to see the detail of the worn tread.  It's his job, of course.  It's what he's trained to do.

My favourite books are the ones where the writer grabs me with some well-observed detail of character or appearance - the minute insight that suddenly brings the person to life.  It's a fine skill, but I think that, like a police officer, you can train yourself to do it too.

There's a fashion at the moment for what is called 'Mindfulness' as a remedy for stress.  It seems to mean that you blot out troubling thoughts by focusing exclusively on the moment, the here and now, observing even the automatic breaths you take so that your mind doesn't stray.  Using that sort of intensity on observation is good training.

I love train journeys, not least because you can watch other passengers, see the ways they move, the ways they react to their companions.  You can invent the story of their lives; the irritated flicker of the muscles round the man's mouth as the woman opposite interrupts his newspaper reading; the softening of the eyes and the tiny involuntary smile as the girl stares dreamily out of the window; the elderly lady's hopeful eyes scanning her neighbours to see who might be prepared to talk to her.

It's not just the devil that lies in the detail; there's an angel in detail as well; the neat, significant observation that is more effective than lines of description.  Perhaps it's just a question of rediscovering the sort of absolute concentration we all had as children when we were interested in something  - as in this picture of my grandson, his puppy and a snail.

1 comment:

Donis Casey said...

Very insightful, Aline. Mindfulness has saved my life more than once. (and greatly improved my writing style to boot!)