Authors: Scarlett Thomas
Edinburgh • London • New York • Melbourne
For Francesca Ashurst and Couze Venn
Frequency of Occurrence of Letters in English
Let Them Eat Cake cake
The First 1000 Primes
Also by Scarlett Thomas
interview, when subjects were asked why
they had gone on, a typical reply was: ‘I wouldn’t have done it
by myself. I was just doing what I was told.’ Unable to defy the
authority of the experimenter, they attribute all responsibility
to him. It is the old story of ‘just doing one’s duty
Obedience to Authority
Paddington Station feels like it should be shut. Late at night, long after rush-hour, it has an echo and the occasional blast of cold, thin air that smells of diesel. This really is an ideal time to be in train stations, when hardly anyone else is travelling. It is almost half-past eleven at night and I am looking for my train, which is due to leave in about twenty minutes. The station feels like it is on beta-blockers. A pulse – yes – but slowed. A medicated slowness; a pleasant fug. This speed, if it were healthy, would belong to someone who trampolines every day, rather than to the owner of the more dangerous circulation you see clogging the station at five or six in the evening.
For the first time in weeks I am wearing proper shoes, and I can actually hear my footsteps as I walk, a D Major scale playing on concrete. If you ever plan to hang around train stations in the middle of the night, you should always make sure you can hear your own footsteps, and, if you are at all musical, you should try to work out which notes you make as you walk, as it stops you from being lonely, not that I ever get lonely. Tonight I am wearing a long coat and a hat and I almost wish I was smoking an exotic cigarette in a holder because added to the coat, hat and suitcase, it would close the parentheses of this look, which I recognise from films and spy thrillers, but can’t actually name, although I know people who could.
I know people who would make all sorts of assumptions about the clothes I am wearing. They would assume I had chosen a ‘look’. They’d see my shirt and jumper and want to say, ‘School uniform look today, Alice?’ but then they’d see my tartan skirt, tights and sensible shoes and eventually conclude that I’m in what has been called in the past my ‘Bletchley Park’ look. Having named my ‘look’,
these people would assume that everything was a deliberate part of it, that all my clothes and everything I have with me, from my purse to my suitcase to my knickers, had been chosen for a reason; to identify me, to give me my own code or stamp. Even if I wore – as I have done in the past – a truly random selection of old or weird clothes, this would simply be labelled my ‘Jumble Sale’ or ‘Homeless’ look. I hate this so much. They know I hate it, which is one of the reasons they do it, some logic dictating that when you act annoyed at something people do, it becomes funnier the more they do it.
I work at a toy company called PopCo. Most people love working at PopCo. It’s a young, cool company with no dress code, no rules and no set working hours, well, not for the Ideation and Design (ID) staff anyway. Our team, which used to be called Research and Design, but isn’t any more, has its own little headquarters in a red-brick building in Battersea and people are just as likely to pull all-nighters making prototypes as they are to suddenly all decamp
to Prague for a week, trend-spotting and fact-finding. Ideas are everything, everywhere, everybody at PopCo. We live to attract ideas: we are always in season for them; we fan our tail feathers and dance to attract them; our doors are always open if they decide to finally come over, drunk, when we had given up hope of seeing them that night.
Almost everyone in PopCo Ideation and Design is very cool. They devote themselves to it in a way I find impossible. Perhaps it’s because I am a division all on my own, a solitary brand-cluster. I am an island despite being connected to land, a new girl despite having been at the company almost two years, an outsider despite being firmly on the inside. Sometimes, despite being on the run from them and their cool, all that happens is that I find myself at the end or beginning of a circle/cycle when everyone else is in the middle of it. Next year they will be the ones wearing shirts with jumpers and skirts, and their hair in sensible plaits, you can be sure of it. Perhaps at that point I will look like a college kid from Tokyo, as they do now, or like a junked-up space-girl, as they may do the season after next. With the people at PopCo there is a dilemma. If you dress like them, you fit in. If you dress in an opposite way to them, or in things so ridiculous they could never consider wearing them, you are cool, daring and an individual – and therefore you fit in. My
constant conundrum: how do you identify yourself as someone who doesn’t fit in when everything you could possibly do demarcates you as someone who does? If we were all children, it would be easier to rebel. Then again, if we were children, maybe I would actually want to fit in.
After a reception tomorrow lunchtime, the PopCo Open World event (P.O.W./POW), which is taking place at the company’s ‘Thought Camp’ in Devon, will properly begin. PopCo is the third-largest toy company in the world, the first and second being Mattel and Hasbro. It has Corporate Headquarters in Japan and the US, and a smaller version here in the UK. Each country has its own separate ID section, but all the really crazy idea-generation (ideation) goes on at four main Thought Camps around the world, one each in Sweden, Iceland, Spain and the UK. We have all heard of this place in Devon but not many people have been there before. Since we usually have our annual POW somewhere really cool, we have all been wondering why, this year, we are basically going to a PopCo complex in the middle of nowhere. They usually throw money at these events; this year they must be spending next to nothing. I have to say I’m intrigued, and I like the idea of Devon, but for the last few weeks in Battersea everyone has been saying things like, ‘It’s not going to be like Asmara, is it?’ Asmara, a city in Eritrea, is where the last POW was held. Asmara was a pretty bizarre experience. We were in the middle of a tour of one of the PopCo factories when a big civil disturbance broke out and we had to be flown home.
The words ‘toy company’ usually make people think of fluffy things and wooden blocks; elves, perhaps, in an industrial-revolution version of Santa’s Grotto, hammering and carving and running around with dolls, farmyard animals and jigsaw puzzles, placing them in sacks for delivery to clean children who sit in front of fires. In fact, these days, toys are more likely to involve fast food promotions, film tie-ins, interactivity, ‘added-value’, super-branding and, of course, focus groups observed through one-way mirrors. Wooden blocks, at least the ones made by most toy companies, are apparently now designed according to a mathematical formula that tells you how many of each letter to include in which ratios on how many blocks so that children need to own more than one set in order to make proper words. I don’t know if this is true but I know
the sort of equation that would make it possible. Apparently someone did once suggest we started applying these sorts of equations at PopCo but she was then sacked. I don’t know if this is true either. Although it is less than a hundred years old, PopCo has more folklore than some small countries, as well as a bigger GDP. The other major toy companies are the same.
The folklore, like everything else, is part of the fun. Fun colonises everything when you work in a toy company. You may have heard of things like ‘Geek Cool’ and ‘Ugly Beauty’. Nothing is automatically uncool any more, which is another way of saying you can sell anything, if you know how. It isn’t immediately clear to some people how this cynical, grown-up world of cool has found its way into the toy market. But those of us who work in the industry know that all marketing is ultimately aimed at children and teenagers. They’re the ones with the disposable income and the desire to fit in. They spread crazes like they were nits, and make their parents buy things they don’t need. Think of all the current buzzwords going around. A lot of people realise that they ‘come from’ school playgrounds and that what your nine-year-old kid says to his mates this week will be what you and your grown-up colleagues will be saying at work next week. Although these things germinate in playgrounds, they often originate in marketing departments. Kids have an accelerated, intensified idea of ‘cool’. They go through friends, phases, crazes like flowers blooming on speed-cam. You can hit them, successfully, with something like 20,000 products before they are fifteen, at which point their tastes start to plateau and they buy less.
Toy companies don’t necessarily make just toys any more – our most successful division is videogames, and our most financed research is in robotics – we simply make the things that kids want. We are in the business of the new and shiny, the biggest and the best, the glittery and magical, the fast and addictive. The toy industry has two big advantages over other industries. Our products are the easiest to sell, and our customers are the easiest to sell to. That doesn’t mean that all products succeed, of course. But we can make things that explode or float or take you to fantasy lands, and, if we get it right, kids’ eyes will grow big when they watch our advertisements.
That’s not to say I am cynical. I am not. Neither do I hate my
job. My job is to create new products in my three brands, of which one is for kids who want to be spies, one is for kids who want to be detectives and the third is for kids who want to become code-breakers. They are called KidSpy, KidTec and KidCracker respectively and are about to be rebranded under a new umbrella brand called ‘Shhh!’. Focus groups and market research have shown that kids who buy one of my brands usually buy all three, and I am under pressure to square the triangle by coming up with a fourth ‘killer’ brand for a demographic of lonely, clever, devious, sometimes traumatised children, who can be boys or girls but who all basically like hiding, secrets and sneaking around catching/spying on criminals. This fourth brand (which will now become a sub-brand) will be the focus for relaunching the others. There will be an advertising campaign; possibly TV. It’s very exciting. And having a really successful brand really makes you one of the gang at PopCo.
Nevertheless – and this is something that, for whatever reason, I feel quite strongly about – I don’t want to be in this gang. Gangs make me feel uncomfortable. Being popular makes me feel uncomfortable. So this is what it’s like being on the run from the fashion Gestapo; my own underground resistance movement: travelling one day before them, dressing in fabrics opposite to theirs, wearing clashing colours when they don’t, and not when they do. However, I am not travelling one day before them to be different, but because I just don’t very much like being squashed, unable to breathe, underground or any kind of emotional/spatial equivalent. Although I am normal in almost every other way, I don’t really like it when strangers touch me. It makes me want to cry. Thus the night train.
Because of my ‘condition’ (human condition, medical condition, whatever), I often get to destinations one day before whoever I am travelling ‘with’ and, although travelling like this is something I do in response to a problem, I often forget the problem and just find the experience interesting, like riding a waltzer by yourself or making a cake to eat on your own.
My suitcase is on the ground. I suddenly feel nervous about it just sitting there. This is not a black and white film; it could get stolen, or dirty. I pick it up and look at the Departures Board. My train is going from Platform 9. I wonder if I am going to enjoy this journey. I did think about driving down but my 1960 Morris Minor
(inherited from my grandfather) probably wouldn’t do well on such a long journey. Without anthropomorphising the car too much (although this is a hazard when you work in a toy company – you find you can put eyes on anything and it will come to life), it seems to get miserable on long journeys now. It’s a shame, because I love the feeling of travelling in my own bubble, sharing the sleepy motorway only with big lorries and their fuzzy orange spaceship lights. Still, the night train is also an adventure and I’m only going to be away for a couple of days. I am planning to travel back after the whole thing finishes on Monday night and I know I will be too tired to drive. Also, it might be nice to have a Martini or something afterwards, and I wouldn’t want to drive 250 miles home after that. Maybe not Martini. I started drinking Martini because no one else did but now everyone seems to like it. Another conundrum.
I start walking to Platform 9. There are a few other people in the station: some on benches, some in hooded sweatshirts, some obviously drunk or vaguely dispossessed. On one cluster of benches, however, there is what must be a family: a man and woman and three children. They look tired and thin and are wearing clothes I don’t recognise. Who are they? I am now lost in my own time-warp fantasy involving steam trains and romance, but they are a real time-warp, sitting on benches, sharing a loaf of bread. I am just about to stop staring and walk on when I notice that one of the children is reading a book with a red cover. Is this that moment that authors probably have all the time but I have never had? Is that small, thin, lost-looking child reading one of the books from the series I create? I walk closer to the bench, straining to look. When I get close enough to see, the book has gone and the child is holding a red lunch box. As I continue walking towards my platform, I think I can hear an owl hooting somewhere in the roof of the station.