THINK TANK | People Watching

YOU KNOW the times you spend just looking at people in the street or on trains and busses and wondering who they are? I’m talking about the times you find yourself sat on the fountain in Stevenage or using the underground at King’s Cross and you look up at a stranger and find yourself wondering what their story is or where they are going? and how come they ended up crossing your path as they do now? Do you ever end up wondering about the millions of people around you and how they come to interact and who they are?

Relax if you think this a little strange, just like masturbation everyone does this but only the confident talk about it, it’s a healthy extension of our own wonderment and imagination, it’s given the moniker of ‘people watching’ and different people do it differently, some watch others in a detective style trying to work out by their clothes and demeanour who they are and what they do, they use clues such the subject’s briefcase and choice of vocabulary or even the expense of their wristwatch to try and gauge what they do for a living or where they are from and they delight in the knowledge they can garner from even the smallest of clues.

But this is tediously boring and even slightly creepy in my humble opinion and whilst it is fascinating how much information you can gain about someone if you really look at them the real pleasure in people watching comes from making up stories and inventing the histories and missions of those strangers who cross your path.

I’m guessing that there’s a few of you who read that last sentence who know exactly what I’m talking about.

Without exception everyone I have spoken to about this has fantasized, actually that’s too strong a word, has conjured up stories about a stranger in their imagination to while away the time and the most common themes tend to be about those strangers really being spies and secret assassins, ninjas or other secret sections of society their humble briefcases containing much more than office stationary and a packed lunch, instead these mild mannered middle class commuters on public transport or passing you as you gaze out of the window of some bland coffee shop or eatery are actually carrying everything from unstable plutonium stolen to make nuclear missiles to silenced pistols and lethal poisons as they headed towards downing street.

Sounds far fetched and ridiculous now I come to read it on paper but that’s what I love about it. I know so many people who do this and the ridiculousness of their testimonials as they tell me what they think about in those private moments makes me so happy and it turn it pleases them to have the release of knowing ‘its not just me.’

If you have ever seen Ocean’s 12 or 13 where they steal the Faberge egg from a bland looking backpacker taking public transport whilst a convoy of impressive looking black cars distracts the attention of any would be thief then you will be able to understand that we never know what people have in their bags or who they really are or what they are doing. We can’t ever really know but it is a human tendency to wonder. I actually saw a guy stopped at King’s Cross and forced to empty his bag that was just full of different hats!

Where was he going? what kind’ve vital mission was he on with his bag full of hats? I’m infinitely glad it was hat man stopped instead of me on that fateful day though as I was carrying a mexican wrestler mask, a spray can and stencil, a number of small plastic army men, a cookie cutter in the shape of a ghost, superglue, furry handcuffs, some fantastic trousers and a purple silk bondage rope (all of which there is a perfectly reasonable explanation for and it ties into halloween nicely which starts to make more sense but I would just rather not have to have that conversation with the police)

We all know why we people watch, even if you’ve never really thought about it – because its our imagination drifting out into our surroundings and it takes the tedium out of everyday life helping to pass the time when we’re doing something mundane and are surrounded by others doing the same. In fact I can’t help but wonder about the lives I have lead in other people’s imaginations without ever knowing it – I wonder what they saw in me and where I was going in their imaginations?

If you have any running themes that you tend to imagine when you people watch or anything you do when in these situations or thoughts on what I’ve written then please share them as its always good to know that even the odd little things we do we ALL do together.

People watching in Picadilly

Words by Matt Turner


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