Guest blogger, Matt Gilbert talks about finding writing inspiration in the seemingly mundane...
The ordinary? You know it, right? You’d recognise it at once.
Ordinary is always there hanging around, doing nothing much.
Ordinary is a kind of dusty, greenish-grey. It’s a little bland, a bit lethargic, slow moving, dull.
At parties, if invited, ordinary sits unobtrusively in corners – bag of supermarket own-brand cans clutched tightly in its lap, offering little by way of conversation.
Is that fair?
If asked to define the ordinary, to explain the mundane, I’d imagine many people – myself included – would use words like ‘average’, ‘routine’, ‘anonymous’, ‘pedestrian’, ‘standard’, ‘expected’ ‘everyday’ and ‘boring’.
In an effort to make all this sound grander, you might describe the slow grind tick, tock, tick, sigh of daily existence as ‘quotidian’. Perhaps you’d locate the ordinary, by referring to it as ‘suburban’. In a vague and general sense, we could probably all agree that ordinary is, ordinarily, all of the above.
A lot of what I write about on my blog and in poems could be regarded as ordinary, even mundane. Typical subjects are shabby English city squares, side streets, local parks and woods, quiet alleys, plane trees, sparrows, woodlice, buddleia.
None of them scream excitement, but all have, at times, gifted me inspiration. That isn’t because I aim to fetishize the banal: the truth is, I find that if you give it a second glance, or second’s thought, you can sometimes find the extra in the ordinary.
As a child, the routine and the familiar were conditions I felt compelled to escape. My getaway vehicle was usually a book. Luckily for me my youthful, existential ‘Is this it?’ was answered by midnight gardens, cavemen living in small-town dumps, Moomins pursuing comets, old whistles left on beaches, travellers knocking on moonlit doors and ancient woods, bigger by far than they appeared to be on a map – if you could find them on a map. My early reading gave me a hunger for what the late writer and critic Mark Fisher termed, ‘the weird and the eerie’.
As an adult it can be harder to access such thin-places, gateways to other dimensions. But while magic portals hidden under cherry laurel hedges may have been sealed off, bright flashes of strange, interrupting the everyday, can still be found.
Rather than a mystic hole, it may be an unexpected scream from a fox, or a swift, that does it. Sudden exhilarating reminders that this world is not only here for humans.
A group of sparrows appearing out of nowhere like UFOs, before abruptly and precisely banking in mid-air, as they hand-brake turn into a hedge.
Or a grey slab of paving stone, momentarily transformed into a living stage by a stag beetle.
Even beer bottles carelessly tossed into a street corner will sometimes catch a sudden shaft of sunlight and wink like grounded green stars. The gag-stink of a freshly burnt-out scooter abandoned in a park, might grab you by the nostrils and tell a story – if not a particularly uplifting one.
Another fascinating aspect of the ordinary, is how it manages to somehow be at once overlooked and everywhere. Authors, poets, ‘edgeland’ nature writers, psychogeographers, local historians and more can’t seem to leave the everyday alone.
The best ones change it, or you, or both. For example, you may know what shadows are and have seen them, but read how Alice Oswald handles a shadow in her collection Falling Awake and they’ll never seem quite the same again.
Through reading and music and art, I find myself increasingly aware that there is no one kind of ordinary to be found. It refuses to be pinned down, will squirm, change shape, transform. My ‘ordinary’ as a city dwelling white man of a certain age, is likely to be different from someone else who doesn’t look, or sound, or think like me.
One poem recently brought this home beautifully and forcefully. Unfurling by Jenny Mitchell took an all too common, mundane, casually racist, act of thuggery and metamorphosised it into something astonishing as well. In the poet’s hands a moment of bigotry and violence also becomes an incident of transcendent colour and outlandishness – harnessing the power of the word, to seize back ownership of the event.
Of course, the ordinary won’t always be inspiring. At times the dull and grey and boring, around the corner, or down the road, is just that. But although it can be easy to ignore, it’s worth remembering, that while the mundane may always feel familiar, if noticed, every once in a while, you might find it’s really something else.
Mark Fisher, The Weird and the Eerie, Repeater Books, 2017
Jenny Mitchell, Her Lost Language, Indigo Dreams, 2019 https://www.indigodreams.co.uk/jenny-mitchell/4594685475
Alice Oswald, Falling Awake, Jonathan Cape, 2016
Matt Gilbert. July 2021.
Matt Gilbert is a freelance copywriter and blogger at richlyevocative.net. The blog is full of interesting anecdotes about finding inspiration in ordinary, urban life and well worth a visit. Originally from Bristol, Matt now gets his fill of urban hills in South East London.