The Bureau of Small Observation

Small Observation is a writing project I’ve been doing the last few weeks; little snippets of people I see out and about.

It’s emailed out every weekday morning, and you can sign up at tinyletter.com/smallobservation

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I’m quite enjoying it. The slew of “30 days of…” exercises has proven to me that I need regular things to keep my brain in a good state, and it’s a bit of a throwback to old projects like The Polaroid Press. Zine-y, but different.

Coupled with my very occasional walking blog, it’s probably the main way I’ll be writing in public for the foreseeable.

I made a stamp for it too. I like having tokens for writing projects; exactly enough clutter to completely remove any pressure to print them.

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Culture about culture

Somewhat predictably, I loved 20,000 Days on Earth and The Possibilities Are Endless. Beautiful films that’ll be filed away under ‘music documentary’ when they do that brilliant thing of slipping between genres and moods marvellously.

I was thinking afterwards about the music reviews I used to write. I don’t think that I’d be able to stand doing that anymore. If I did then I don’t think my writing would involve much writing.

All the criticism I’ve really loved in the last couple of years has made an effort to make culture in, of and about culture. And that’s films like these, or Shut Up and Play The Hits, or From The Sea To The Land Beyond, or Patience (After Sebald), or the stand up tour John Peel’s Shed, or Paul Morley’s book Nothing, or Clipping Through, or or or… Poking at the things the makers love, they create something new.

A lot of little letters

I don’t really have an image for this one.

A month or so ago I asked if anyone wanted me to send them a postcard with a little story on it. It was a follow-up to a quick exercise where I wrote five postcards one Saturday morning and sent them to random twitter folk – first come, first served.

The plan was to write 30. 37 people asked for one, so I did a few more and (finally) popped the last batch in the post today.

The exercise was strange. Absolutely undocumented, absolutely unplanned. The writing was spontaneous, and there are more than a few out there that I’m embarrassed by (I hate that people will have them – I dread the idea of people keeping them). But there’s a bunch – well over half – that I’m really happy with.

Part of me wondered if it might turn into a story engine; ideas spitting out that might become future projects. Nope. Very few things really bit.

What I discovered is that I like putting words in people’s mouths – literally scribbling imagined dialogue. Thing is, when I sit down and write fiction that’s far and away the hardest part. Spontaneity of voice is something I’ll find different ways of practising again – maybe with a similar exercise, but focusing on the back-and-forth of people telling stories.

Getting the blank cards was fun. Once I started seeking postcards they started spontaneously appearing. The serendipity of finding cards in places I found myself – paid visitor or naive stranger – was really interesting, especially as I spent so much of September away.

Not everyone’s checked in, but about a quarter of the cards definitely arrived. Responses have been positive or neutral, and that’s about what I’d hope for scraps of writing jotted in London, Portland, Seattle, Vancouver and all the routes between.

My favourite response though was Katie’s. She wandered in to her house to find a postcard on her mat – no idea which one – having entirely forgotten about volunteering to take part. For a few brief seconds she imagined herself in the opening of some Pynchon-esque narrative, something unfolding in front of her that made no linear sense.

I can only imagine how disappointed she must have felt when she remembered I owed her a postcard.

Rescued moments

“Some of these images are so familiar to me, so much a part of my little history, that much like the songs I have written, these photographs have become the props around which my memories collect.”

I went to the Bleddyn Butcher exhibition A Little History: Nick Cave & Cohorts, 1981 – 2013 the other day. Short a sweet, but this quote on the wall – from Cave’s introduction to a book of Butcher’s photographs – put me in mind of (lovely lovely) Timo.

Timo’s Visual History of BERG album is properly brilliant, a really nice testament to the work of the company and its cohort over a decade.

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More than I have done in ages I’m flip-flopping between DOCUMENT/KEEP/HOARD ALL THE THINGS! and LESS! – three house moves in a year and two months living out of a suitcase has me leaning on the latter.

Both photography collections were a good reminder that that’s a false binary for coded objects in near-infinite digital space. What’s shown can be edited, but you don’t have to throw away what’s hidden.

McDo

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Honestly, I quite like the new McDonalds ads. I haven’t seen the TV campaign (I assume there is one) and I’m sure the radio version’s a bit shit, but the billboards are neat. In them, I recognise the branch I worked at for two years. My first job. I fucking hated it.

But that bunch of shared experiences around a shared mono-cultural reference point, that rings true. There’s no need to talk about quality in the ad – McDonalds just is. And of course you’ve been on a date there, and of course you’ve had one in a hurry on the way home, and of course your parents treated you to one. Because it’s there.

I won’t actually go to one though, despite the ads. I mean, I worked there.

Three slogans and photographs I’d love to see but won’t…

‘The chip-fryer splash scream’
‘The cleaning out the playground grimace’
‘The hurry child to the loo in time dash’

Thirty stories on thirty postcards

Like I said, one last thirty day thing left in me. But this one I’m keeping offline.

Nat’s started up 30 days of stories, which got me thinking of an alternative version. A cover version. 30 stories on thirty postcards. I won’t be sticking to her list as I imagine the postcards themselves will take me in another direction, but I might well use a few of them.

If you want one, email me; matthew.sheret@gmail.com