Irritating though conversations on mobile phones may often be to those not involved in them, I nevertheless feel a compulsion sometimes to eavesdrop on them. They can be banal and boring, or they can be entertaining and illuminating. Oddly enough, people speak in public on their mobile phones as if they were surrounded by an invisible sound-proofed chamber. Ease of communication appears paradoxically to lead to an increase in solipsism.
The other day I was on the ramp leading to the entrance of the Tate Modern Museum. A lady was speaking loudly into her phone about the burglary that a friend of hers had just suffered, in which every valuable had been stolen and the house ‘trashed,’ to use her charmless but expressive term. ‘They even took S…’s guitar,’ she said, and for a moment I warmed to the burglars. One youth the less playing the guitar can only be a good thing, for I have noticed that the musical tastes of those who play the guitar are generally lamentable. Kingsley Amis said that the word ‘workshop’ encapsulated all that was wrong with the modern world; I would propose the word ‘guitar’ in its place. But then I realised that, of course, the stolen guitar would not be destroyed but given or sold to some youth to strum upon, perhaps even worse than S… . There is no escaping the guitar.
Leading a slightly peripatetic life at the moment I was in a second hand bookshop in Washington D. C. a few days later when I overheard a young woman speaking into her phone. ‘I like philosophy,’ she said. ‘I like listening to it and I like thinking about it, but I don’t like reading it.’
I was reminded of my young patients who said they wanted to be artists or writers. I asked them which galleries they went to and what they read. They neither went to the galleries nor read anything, they said: they expected their genius to manifest itself fully-formed and uncontaminated by the corrupt productions of the past.
I came out of the bookshop as a young woman jogged by, speaking on a microphone from her phone.
‘I have too many responsibilities for my age,’ she was saying. ‘Too many people depending on me for too many things.’
Her face, it seemed to me, betrayed a hardness, a ruthlessness, an ambitiousness. I wouldn’t have wanted to stand in her way. All the modern means of communication, it seems, encourage people to speak of themselves.
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