I Know Exactly Who I Am When I Am Not Working
A plethora of posts ago I posed the question; Who Are You When You're Not Working? Well, having recently spent three weeks in the UK not working, I know exactly who I am. And having been back in Singapore for three weeks I now know who I am not.
Like most people I had been living in some version of a lockdown for around 18 months, on a tiny tropical island with limited space, monotonous landscapes and no seasons, meaning everyday is exactly the same as the last. It's far from the worst place to live but one of its greatest attraction is its connectivity. It is home to the world's best airport, one of the world's best airlines and the process of travelling around here is a breeze. In fact I'd go as far as to say that Changi Airport is one of my favourite places on the island, so much so I even wrote a poem about it!
The idea of living in Singapore, as an expat, is to use it as a spring board to the rest of the region from Japan to New Zealand. Without that it feels less like Changi Airport and more like Changi Prison! So, on October 1st I decided (with my wife's keen encouragement), to head to the UK despite my anxiety about having to quarantine 14 nights on the way back.
When I arrived in London it was the start of Autumn. The sun was low, the shadows were long and the skies were crisp, clear blue. Stepping out of Heathrow airport, the feeling of a fresh, cool morning was enough to convince me that I had made the right decision. Mornings in Singapore start at 28 degrees, climb to 32 degrees, then fall back to 26 degrees at night. It is never not hot.
Apart from seeing friends and family I had no plan for my three weeks, which very much suits who I am when I am not working. I am someone who appreciates an open schedule, not being booked up, having the option to spontaneously do something...or not.
My first spontaneous decision, after obligatory fish and chips and a good night's sleep, was to head 'up town' (Central London), to find out what was going on, not by searching the Internet, but by looking at the posters plastered on walls, lampposts and, more legitimately, the London Underground. As usual there was a cornucopia of gigs, plays, exhibitions and events. Every time I saw one that caught my eye, I took a picture or jotted down the details for later.
I walked from Charing Cross to Piccadilly via Trafalgar and Leicester Squares, and headed to my favourite bookshop; the giant, five storey Waterstones to top up my library. Books in Singapore are so expensive, I assume because they are dense and heavy to ship. In the one large bookshop that remains (there are several surviving indies), I struggle for inspiration as I don't think I share tastes with the rest of the nation. Waterstones, however, always does an outstanding job of curating books based on bestsellers, clerk recommendations, topics and topicality. I spent a good 2.5 hours in there and came away with the following:
The Daily Stoic by Ryan Halliday & Stephen Hanselman
Human Kind by Rutger Bregman
Notes on A Nervous Planet by Matt Haig
Poems For A World Gone To Sh*t
Calling All Witches! The Girls Who Left Their Mark on the Wizarding World (for my daughter)
I was in the UK, essentially, to address my deteriorating state of mind, which I feel is reflected in my choices!
So, with a Waterstones bag loaded with inspiration I headed to one of my favourite cafes. Now, don't judge me, it is a chain but it's tucked away down the side of an ancient church on Piccadilly almost opposite the Royal Academy - my next stop. The church is surrounded by gardens with sculptures and three gypsy style caravans, which serve as a drop-in counselling service for passersby, which is just brilliant!
Here I read poetry and philosophy over coffee whilst puffing on a Davidoff Primero cigar. This is who I am when I am not working. Over the next three weeks I would do this almost every day and get through 3.5 books, more than a book a week. In Singapore I am lucky to manage one a month. This is unsatisfactory.
On the second or third day I scrolled through my phone looking at all the posters and notes I kept about events in the city and slowly put together a loose schedule of activity. One thing each day that I could do if I felt like it. I literally don't have time to plan like this in Singapore, there is no time in the day to spend scrolling, looking for things to do. Consequently, I don't do these things in Sing. This too is unsatisfactory.
Over the remaining days and weeks I attended 6 exhibitions, 4 gigs, 2 theatre productions, saw over a dozen bands and walked around 15,000 steps per day because I had no need to rush from A - B but could casually stroll from A, around B, stopping at C for a pint and ending at D for dinner. This is who I am when I am not working.
In normal times I go back to the UK at least once a year, alone, not so much to see family and friends as to stock up on the culture that is sorely missing from Singapore, where a branded marketing event is considered an exhibition! .
When I am not working I am someone who desires an artful life filled with the beauty of music, literature, paintings, and performance plus the intellectual stimulus of lectures, lessons and deep discussion. It occurs to me as I write that I work in Singapore but live in London. Not only is this unsatisfactory, it is unsustainable. I need art to survive, to make life worth living.
Despite what you may think, I love my easy life in Singapore and the opportunities it has given me. But those opportunities tend to be only in business and I need to balance that with recreation, my kind of recreation. I need to make time to explore and plan, to visit and experience and, sometimes, just to read and ponder.
Since I got back I have been waking at 5.30/6am each day, not necessarily because of jet lag (or my insomniac cat!), but because I am determined to find time, make time, for what I love. My new routine has been to wake early, brew myself a posh coffee in the French press and settle down with a book for an hour before work to ensure I fit it in. Today I am using that very time to write this blog. But I wonder how I can contribute more to an artful Singapore both for my own benefit and the benefit of a nation whose founder once claimed, "Poetry is a luxury we cannot afford".
P.S. Another benefit of being in the UK is that I suit autumn clothes SO much better!