Spring Semester 2022: Narrative Currents

In yesterday’s post I referred to the same group of friends- The Clayhill Crew, or The Oven Enthusiasts- and when I reflect on our time together, I often think about it in narrative terms. As anyone that’s read my book will know, I’m obsessed with the feeling of sonder, and I like to view life’s events as a story. I like the idea that each person is the main character, that their life might be defined (for better and worse) by recurring themes and narrative beats, that each person they meet alters and adds to their story in some way. I think fate is a changeable thing; the fact that I was assigned to live in Clayhill for the year after not getting either of my dorms of choice ended up pushing me along one current and never knowing where the other might have taken me. I think about how the simple act of saying “Yes” in that first week opened up doors for me I didn’t know were there. I could so easily have never experienced Holi, paddleboarding, or the pub quiz at The Victoria.

During the past year I wondered about the currents that each of the others took in order to get to where we were, here together in London. People are fundamentally unknowable- there’s always more beneath the surface. They can tell you facts about the parts of their lives you don’t see, but you can never stand in their shoes. Even our parents, to whom we feel like the center of their universe, had vivid lives before they met us, before they met each other. When I said good night to my friends at the pub, or at Netravati’s flat, I thought about what the group and its constituent members meant to each of their stories. I know from my own experience how my past has shaped how I perceive the group and the role it plays in my life. Each person arrived at the group with their own unique history, their own traumas and neuroses, their own expectations, fears, and dreams. And so, undoubtedly, each person perceived it differently.

As I asked Bakula questions about her family back in India, I wondered what it was like to take your life from Bengaluru to London. I imagined that every impression of her new city was made against her memories of the old one. I wondered how we compared to her old friends. I knew that her London was different to mine, that it belonged to her alone, that it was molded by the current she had taken. For me, London has always been the end destination of my current, rather than a stop on the way. I arrived last year with the intention to plant roots here, treating the city as the culmination of everything that came before it. When Mason told us about the things he had seen and done in London, having lived in and around it his whole life, I wondered too how different the city looked through his eyes. He told us about skating at night through empty parking garages during his teens, and I thought that perhaps London was the least strange for him. Perhaps he was used to people that came and went, and that our group was one of many motley crews that he had been a part of in his life. I think of the people in this city as being constantly in motion- assembling just as quickly as they scatter. I watched with interest as Ingrid pulled Kip Thorne’s The Science of Interstellar from a Waterstones tote bag and handed it to him, trying to imagine what Mason would think of us in 30 years’ time, how the group (for better or worse) would shape his life.

As I mentioned earlier, I was hoping that London would fill a hollowness I felt in myself. But for Ingrid and Ned, I sensed the opposite. The wilderness of nature was so much a part of who they were. Ingrid showed us photos of the northern lights and fly-fishing excursions in the breathtaking, otherworldly landscape of Norway. Ned spoke of kayaking in the whitewater cascades of Slovenia and the Scottish Highlands with the passionate tones usually reserved for a lover you can’t wait to see again after a long absence. I got the sense that Ingrid was incomplete without her fishing rod and Ned incomplete without his kayak. I thought that to them, London with its cold bricks and carbon monoxide fumes must be a kind of interlude in their respective stories, a holiday outside of the rural landscapes to which they were inextricably bound.

During my MA, there was a class where we consulted theories about groups and the different roles that emerged during team projects. This made me think of the Clayhill Crew and whether you could apply similar theories to friendship groups. In particular, I thought of Ned, who I felt shaped the group more than any other person. I wondered if the rest of us would have even met at all, had he not been proactive- and brave- in introducing himself, introducing others, and suggesting things to do in those early days. He had a phrase that went “You just gotta make it happen,” which I feel encapsulates the role he played so well, as he always set things in motion. That was so important in the first few weeks. I know from my own experience, there can be a sense of inertia as you’re hoping to connect with people but you’re not sure how. You don’t know how to be yourself around these new faces, and you’re worried that being yourself is the wrong decision. But Ned had that easy way about him where he was able to be himself around total strangers, approaching people at random- as he did myself- and trusting that the connection would work. This made me wonder, especially in the context of London seemingly being an interlude in his story, how the rest of the group would remember him in years to come. Some of them are now living together, have become the very best of friends, have met important people through each other, have discovered all kinds of opportunities- personal and professional- via each other. I wandered then, if they ever traced it back to Ned.

I imagined a future scenario, perhaps a couple years hence, where someone that’s new to London- and feeling overwhelmed, lonesome, and vulnerable- gets taken in by the remnants of The Clayhill Crew one evening via a chance encounter. They spend the night drinking together. The newcomer enjoys the way they take the piss out of each other, and for the first time since arriving to the city, they don’t feel alone. Towards the end of the evening, the newcomer asks them how they all know each other. The group pauses for a moment; Mason takes a long, philosophical drag from a watermelon vape, Paul finishes the last of his Thatcher’s Gold- what do they think? I like to imagine that they picture Ned, clapping his hands on his thighs and telling them to “Crack on,” in his no-nonsense Yorkshire manner. He’s the character in their story that appears for a brief time to set them on the right path and give them what they need. During this pause, the newcomer can sense a deep history that connects them, stretching back to a time where they too were newcomers of a kind.

I suppose if I knew what the future held, none of this would be so interesting to me. But I’m constantly drawn to these imaginative exercises (the Clayhill Crew just being one example) where I like to consider how the same people, places, and events are perceived by the people I share them with- and the narrative power they attach to them.

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