Monday Writing Motivation: lessons in people watching for writers
We’re sitting in a Pret a Manger somewhere in Farringdon having coffee and keeping a wary eye on the weather. We have an appointment in thirty five minutes across the road, but the forecast has been rain, rain, rain, and we don’t want to be soaked on the way across.
“Look,” Trish murmurs. Now, Trish is not one to direct my attention to anyone when there’s the vaguest chance they’ll spot my curiosity – I tend not to disguise it – so I’m pretty sure there’s little chance I’ll be caught spying.
I turn. Entering the premises is an elderly couple. Now, understand that the detailed description of each of them that follows, should be credited to Trish’s powers of discernment. Her vocabulary in matters that pertain to the clothes people wear has been honed over the decades by her work in the art and wardrobe departments of film and television productions.
Plus, she has an instinct about colour and design that exceeds mine by orders of magnitude. Not to mention insight into the sartorial habits of the various specialists active in the sweaty world of film production.
But even I am able to deduce that our elderly couple has their roots in the film industry. After all, she is carrying a bright tote bag prominently identifying her as a visitor to the 1989 Cannes Film Festival. I point this out. But Trish is one move ahead of me: “Plus they have that attitude, you know, that the average old person doesn’t have.”
It’s true. It’s not that they strut – they’ve past the age of strutting. But you get the feeling watching them that they’ve never lost the habit of assuming they’re in command.
The old lady is walking with a single crutch. She’s wearing a chocolate brown puffer coat with an extravagant fur-lined hood thrown back over black, Japanese-style culottes. She’s wearing silver-sequined slip-on plimsolls with ankle-length white socks. And to top it all, a pink sweater and a green and pink scarf.
Trish eyes them over the rim of her coffee cup as they seek out an empty table on the far side of Pret. “She’s obviously art department,” she says. “Maybe wardrobe… Probably wardrobe. An art director would never wear sequined shoes.”
Having helped her into her seat, her partner makes his way slowly towards the sandwich racks. He’s tall, wearing baggy jeans of a non-denim variety, with expensive-looking black and white trainers. He has on a scruffy navy sweater and a dull green shirt.
“Everything’s a size too big,” Trish says.
“As though he’s shrunk. Possibly cancer.”
“Or just old age.”
“What do you think he did?”
While we ponder this question, our subject contemplates the choices available to him. He takes off his sunglasses and perches a pair of half-moon reading glasses on his nose. Eventually, he settles on one particular sandwich – we are too far away to tell what it is – and examines it closely. Perhaps he is reading the ingredients on the label. Something about it is unsatisfactory. He replaces it on the shelf and takes another, subjecting it to the same detailed scrutiny. Finally content, he switches spectacles once more, and turns to approach the counter.
But his eye is caught by a second rack of sandwiches offering an entirely different range of delights. He pauses, confounded by this fresh challenge. It looks for a moment as if he is going to reject the sandwiches he’s already chosen , but then, no, he nods to himself and heads for the cash till.
“Not a producer,” Trish says firmly. “he’s too scruffy to be a producer. He’s more a hands-on type.”
“Could be a cameraman,” I venture. But Trish will have none of it.
“No way. You saw how nit-picky he was about those sandwiches? A cameraman would be much more decisive.”
While we talk, the director pays and returns to his flamboyant partner.
“What about him?” I say, nodding at a man in a spiffy suit reading a newspaper a few tables from us. “A lawyer?”
“No, more a banker. Look what he’s reading…”