................... SMOOTHIE OPERATOR



A few years ago I took a part-time job as a telephone operator at BT. The pay was lousy, but the job interested me. The operator centre consisted basically of a huge room with three gangways - one at each side and one down the middle. Between the gangways were desks set out in oblongs of six, with three operator positions either side, so that if you were to walk down the middle gangway you'd pass about ten of these oblongs on each side, making twenty in total, or 120 positions.

My job, essentially, was to select a vacant position, adjust the seat, plug in my headset and connect with the public - that is, anyone who dialled 100 (or 999). Mostly the demands entailed solving problems connecting calls, giving advice and information, or passing the customer on to other departments such as 'enquiries', 'services' or 'repairs'.

After three weeks' training, I was on my own. But there was one snag: to maintain standards, a supervisor in a special cubical - part of a small office complex at one end of the big room - occasionally monitored operators surreptitiously: new recruits were checked frequently, old hands hardly ever. Sometimes a supervisor would appear behind me, ask me to complete the call, then request that I go with her - it was invariably a 'her' - into the adjoining room where she would present me with an alarming list of blunders.

After several such episodes I'd pretty well got the hang of it; and within a few months I was, so far as I could tell, monitored rarely. Even so, I continued to perform impeccably within the limit of my skills; perhaps I made a few small errors, but my intention, for the moment, was to toe the line.

Another couple of months passed. If I was going to be monitored now, I had a fair idea when. Probably due as much to its sedentary nature as low pay, this was an occupation that suffered from high turnover. The resulting constant stream of recruits meant supervisors being permanently kept busy observing them. So, to the exclusion of all but the most inept, established personnel were left to themselves. Consequently, I was soon practically on my own. This meant I could use my discretion. At last I had power.

I should explain that during my life I have acquired an unorthodox sense of discretion. Some would say that it wasn't so much discretion I had acquired as the lack of it. They might refer to my stance as irresponsible. There have been times when this has brought me trouble. But I have never minded that, since my guideline has always been to maintain a clear conscience. Most of what I believe and do is directed to that end. If I fail to accord with this I am soon aware of an incongruous uneasiness, and I can either correct myself or take the consequences.

A difficulty arises here when one is not fully informed and a decision has to be based on incomplete data; all the same, I am convinced that if more people were to adopt a similar position and refer to their conscience instead of just blindly obeying orders, as most people do, then the world would be greatly improved.

My first act of 'indiscretion' was to give away calls to children. They spend most of their time looking for excitement, a chance to pull some prank or other, and it amused them, for instance, to call one another between pay-phones - requesting reverse-charge. A great opportunity for a lark.

Then again, if I felt sympathy for a caller, which I invariably did if I thought they were hard-up, I would give away even international calls. One day a guy with a heavy accent and £1 was calling Nigeria at £1.50/min. He'd spent the £1 just to get through, then it was over - so he called me. I set-up the connection, and when I heard him talking like an auctioneer I shoved him in one of the hold-slots at the top of the screen and left him there for nine minutes before he stopped and queried the duration. Only then did I delete the call. Thus, by degrees, I became increasingly daring.

The chief problem for people like me is that to achieve a position of influence, it is usually necessary to expend decades working their way up. Then, by the time they've reached the sought position, they are so indoctrinated by the customs of their field, or are so tired, old and decrepit, that they merely carry on as they are, doing things the traditional way, obeying useless and often counterproductive rules and procedures, and even digging in their heels to prevent others taking a new approach. Moreover, they are inclined to instil the most absurd traditions into new bright youngsters (and anyone else who might otherwise be inclined to rock their sullied boat) and thereby contaminate the succeeding generation with the same insidious malady. In other words, in the comfort of pseudo-senility, they unwittingly become what they once despised. How often I've seen it! (... and as neatly demonstrated in the little youtube 'Five Monkeys' animation.)

Not all traditions are counterproductive, but I wasn't going to let any kind of gradual slide into corrupt habits carry me. There was no need for it, certainly not here: this was a job with a very short route to power (no time for indoctrination), albeit that such power might seem, on the surface - and in the grand scheme of things - utterly trifling.

Even so, at first I trod warily, using my newfound freedom in small ways as I've explained, so that if caught the consequences would amount perhaps to a mere ticking-off. Indeed, the only offence that brought instant dismissal - apart from slugging a colleague - was one with which I too disapproved (though 'the sack' seemed to me slightly excessive). It was, simply, to swear at a customer. When this was detected, the offending operator would be immediately escorted from the building via the office complex and the back staircase emergency exit - presumably this was to prevent possible disquieting responses from the victim's colleagues. It was a tactic that struck me as both unnecessary and sinister.

However, it was rumoured during the summer that the swear-and-dismiss process served as the basis for a particular company ploy. At the end of the season when foreign students returned home and ceased the lucrative reverse-charge calls to their parents, head-office would declare the centre overstaffed: a euphemism which, by my interpretation, meant the risk of an operator enjoying an occasional moment of respite between calls. To annul such 'inefficiencies' the company was said to place trained provocateurs in pseudo-payphones to swear and curse at operators, the most vulnerable or unwanted of whom would first have been selected for monitoring.

I received a few of these calls myself. (I belonged most definitely to the unwanted: with an average call-time of double the stipulated 48-seconds, what else?) Of course, these calls may have been authentic, but I doubt it: genuine callers relish a freebie, and are usually open to reason too. But these artistes would have none of it. When offered the world they slammed out instantly: foiled again! Occasionally they'd succeed: on two occasions around the end of the season I observed by chance an operator being swiftly and furtively escorted from the room, and never saw them again. Several others were talked much of in the smoking room. The procedure resembled, I cynically mused, a kind of 'who's-next-for-the-chop' scenario. For some, no doubt, the process would have forced a welcome release from stagnation, a release they hadn't the courage to initiate for themselves. For others it would present an unwelcome shock - and regret for allowing themselves to be so easily provoked.

All this took place several years ago at the Hastings exchange - ten minutes' walk from my house, and just three minutes from the sea. The five-floor BT building, which occupied nearly half the east side of Havelock Road, originally housed thousands of uniselectors and relays in its expansive 4m-high rooms. Then in the 70s this was all replaced by a few racks of LSI, which altogether would probably fit into an average kitchen. Hence five of the six floors became pure empty space. When I wandered around these vast abandoned rooms in 1999 they still retained an eerie sense of a bygone era; I could almost hear the ghostly clicking of selectors as I remembered from the 60s - another technology, another age, another town. More recently, before my time there, the operations room was moved to the top floor; a manoeuvre to dodge corporation-tax - which charged for unused 'upper' floors, but (inexplicably) not 'lower' ones. So to get to work one had to either take the lift or trudge up eight little flights of steps.

The job itself though was fine - frequently a pleasure; but since I'd learned most of what there was, 'enjoyed' negligible chance of promotion, and because - above all - the sedentary lifestyle conflicted with my restless nature, I chucked it after 15 months. Even so, I sincerely count the episode among those I cherish.

I should explain: operators were required to sit at a console for two hours at a time - a long while for unbroken concentration - then a 15-minute tea-break would be followed by a further two-hours. This formed a total four-hour shift - a day's work for a part-timer like me, or a half-day for a full-timer.

At tea-breaks most operators made straight for the little smoking room on the floor below. The windows and once magnolia walls of this cubby-hole were almost black with age-old layers of grime. The place reeked so strongly of tobacco and associated filth that one hardly needed to light-up. All the same, in those days I too smoked, and I'd remain in there for the entire fifteen minute break - which demanded a conscious effort, even though, except in the event of a gale, the window was kept open.

After a few months of this pneumonic masochism, I reached a point of awareness where that obnoxious little smoking den became not only intolerably stuffy, but intolerably claustrophobic too: I needed space more than I needed a roll-up. So I began using the adjacent 'lounge' instead. A greater contrast could not have been found. This huge, carpeted room was as long as a cricket pitch and as fresh as a spring meadow - at least, in comparison with the smoking room. As also in the redundant 'restaurant' on the floor above, the lounge could boast vending machines for both drink and food. To find more than two-or-three people at a time resting in either of these was unusual, and those who did were taciturn newspaper junkies. For a non-smoking gossip-fiend the prospect was indeed grim.

As for me, I soon began to miss the comradely ambience of the smoking room, dingy and smelly as it was; so before long, with no-one to talk to - and the weather brightening - I decided to venture outside for my break. Now, once clear of the operations room, I'd charge down the stairs like a wild-kid (growing dizzier as I went) and eventually spin out into the street - the effect was like being released from a bottle - then, with my head still spinning, I'd dash across the road, through the underpass, and up onto the beach where I'd sprint along the sand until I was well out of breath. This obliterated any desire to smoke, but more usefully it created an effect that made my brain seem to expand beyond my head, as if, although propelling me, my body was detached like a separate unit. Then I'd stand a few moments and stare out to sea, absorbing the sky, the waves, the fabulous air… quite oblivious to work.

But hardly had I left the exchange than I seemed to be back taking calls again; the pause scarcely more than a fleeting daydream. Oddly, this impression had not been so apparent when I'd used the smoking den. Maybe this was down to the horrible pleasure of being in that little room, and the scandal, the swapping of stories, tall or true, about weird and sometimes hilarious phone-calls, and all the while doping-up on roll-ups and other mysterious vapours.

Perplexed at the absurdity of the situation with that drab little cubby-hole, some poignant observations came to me. I reflected upon how a crowd of a dozen or more would be crushed together in there - while a few steps away two vast no-smoking areas remained virtually empty. And I was struck by how poignantly this symbolised much of the way society is run, how attempts by malevolent autocrats to exert control are, like a prohibition, inevitably counterproductive… unless the actual aim, I cynically pondered, was to maximise waste and nuisance, and minimise contentment and efficiency.

Take, for instance, footpaths across parks and green-spaces. Have you noticed how often popular routes are well-trodden mud tracks, while few if any pedestrians use the tarmac paths? Consider also the perpetual inherent contradiction in how schools operate: how clear it is that they are designed to suit less than 20% of their clients - that is, the introverted, unimaginative minority… or is neglect of the 80% the real motive: a surreptitious route to bulk failure so that millions of unskilled low-paid jobs can be filled? I digress; and there are examples ad nauseam...

Back at the console after a break, my restlessness would soon resurface. I won't try to recall how often supervisors reproached me as I wheeled my chair in haphazard figures-of-eight within the limit of the headset lead. First would come the frown, then the uncertain dither, and finally the steadfast approach and remonstrations. Over the months, alas, my restiveness only grew worse, to the eventual point where I really had no option but to throw the job in. Still, I had no regrets.

Although very little of what we were obliged to undertake could be described as stressful, a few operators would show signs of pressure; for instance, now and then I would overhear a neighbour's angry, emphatic or exaggerated response to a caller. Or sometimes an energetic bang on the keypad as some unfortunate 'irritating' caller was disconnected or, in the phone-line sense, sent on their way. As for me, I was unable to take any of it seriously - except, of course, emergency calls. Only emergency calls set my nerves racing, and only then if the ambulance service failed to answer while some poor devil was choking or bleeding to death - and the agitated caller imploring me to hurry.

One evening I received a call from a woman trapped in a day-hospital. The security guard had locked the doors without a thorough check. The woman was petrified because the lights had gone out, and she begged me not to abandon her. Good thing she couldn't see the wicked smile that flitted over my face. But seriously, I called the hospital switchboard who connected me to security and then I remained chatting to this poor woman, to comfort her, until with a great sigh, she told me illumination had returned, and she could hear the doors being unlocked.

On another occasion a kid called 999 because he was trapped in a phone box. His 'pals' had wrapped strong tape around it. I should explain here that when an emergency call leapt in red onto the screen, together with the address of the calling phone, a clang-clanging would sound in the headset. I would then announce: 'Emergency. Which service?' and if the caller replied Fire, I'd press 'F' on the keypad (similarly 'P' for police, 'A' for ambulance or 'C' for coastguard). The trick was that when I pressed the appropriate letter, it would connect with the service geographically nearest to the calling telephone. So when that kid requested the police - who he thought might release him more swiftly than any other service - a policewoman replied: 'Oh, it's you. I wondered if you'd end up calling me. I'll come down and let you out.' Evidently her office was within sight of the phone box, and she had been watching the kids larking about.

This incident, I seem to remember, took place somewhere on the Isle-of-Wight. The call could just as well, I suppose, have gone to the Bristol exchange or even Cambridge. Connection to operator centres was arranged to minimise delay. This meant that of the, say fifteen (my memory fails me here), exchanges around the UK, the call would be directed first to its nearest operator centre, then - if the queue exceeded some criteria (maybe 30-seconds?) - the call would divert to another centre, one with an available operator, or with the shortest queue. This meant most of the calls received at Hastings originated in the South East, including Greater London and right across to include Hampshire and Devon. West and north of there would go to Bristol as priority, and north of London to Cambridge. But occasionally I took calls from as far away as Manchester or Plymouth.

Working in London through the eighties, I became tediously familiar with many sounds unique to the great metropolis. Never did I imagine they could become nostalgic. Yet when someone called from a tube station and I could hear as plainly as if I'd been on the platform a train arrive then accelerate away with all the subtle accompanying nuances of clicks and whirrs and echoes, I would picture the scene perfectly, and the caller would be saying: 'Operator? Operator? Are you there? Sod me, he's gone!' and I'd suddenly wake-up and say: 'Yeah, I'm here... the train, you see. Here I am down in Hastings and…how can I help you?' And they'd reply, 'Hastings? OK. Now get me this number…'

On another occasion a curious murmur began to circulate in the exchange. After several minutes my neighbour leaned across and said: 'Watch out, there's a loony going around. Even the Samaritans won't talk to her.' As he said this, the call hit my screen. Peering at the display now, this neighbour, with a malicious grin, raised his head and cried in a hoarse whisper: 'It's her! It's her.' Operators all around were standing up, staring towards me, waving and chortling and whispering: 'Cut her off…', or 'There's no other way…' or 'We've all had her now…' and so on.

How could anyone not be intrigued? How weird does a person have to be to get rejected by the Samaritans? So I said, as pleasantly as I could, 'Good afternoon, how can I help you?'

'Now listen,' came a woman's desperate voice, 'this is so important you can have no idea. And no-one will hear me out. Please, don't cut me off. Just listen.'

'OK. What is it?' I said, 'I'll listen.'

'Good. Thank heavens for that. At last somebody who'll listen. My phone's bugged, that's what's happening. I know it. And I'm being watched too. Everywhere I go I'm being watched. Worst of all, no-one believes me or will do anything. They'll be monitoring this very conversation, probably - whoever THEY are? Who knows what they're doing or planning? What can I do? Can't anyone help me? No one will listen. It's just terrible…I want it stopped… are you still there?'

'I'm listening.' I said, calmly, 'Have you, or anyone you know, worked for the security services, like MI5 or for some embassy or other?'

'You don't understand.' She began again, rapidly, 'It's nothing like that. It's just that everyone's so nosey. They want to know everything. I just want privacy, that's all. Is that too much to ask? It's my right, isn't it? And I hear the phone click sometimes when I'm talking to someone…. There it goes! Did you hear that? You must have heard it! They're listening now. Do something, please! Can't you do something?'

At this point it seemed clear that she was suffering from acute paranoia, though her suspicions did have some justification. Obviously, the way to dispose of irrational fear is to confront a real one - one not thought of earlier. This should swamp the obsession, and shift the victim's perspective. Since privacy is really impossible these days, except in complete isolation, then one needs to address the reality.

I said, 'There's nothing you can do. And you're entirely right. We're all open to bugging. There's no way out unless you want to live in the wilds away from other people and without a phone. You'll have seen the cameras in shopping precincts and elsewhere? Town centres bristle with them. In fact, they're everywhere. Someone, somewhere is probably keeping tabs on us every minute of the day.'

'So you know!' she cried with elation, 'At last! At last someone acknowledges the truth! But don't you think it's terrible? And what can I do? That's the question: What can a person do?'

'Nothing!' I replied, 'And it really doesn't matter. So what if someone watches you buying vegetables? So what if they hear this conversation? Let them enjoy it! The real question is: Who cares? What can they do about it? Are they going to send the Gestapo round to arrest me for buying too many parsnips, or for wasting washing-up liquid or cursing the government over the phone? Just forget about it is my advice… unless you're planning a bank-raid.'

'You're right.' She conceded, 'You're right. I can't thank you enough. You've put my mind at rest. But don't you think people should know what's going on?'

'I think most people do know.' I said, 'But they can't be bothered to think about it. They're too busy getting on with their lives to worry about phone-taps, surreptitious cameras or imagined lurking spies.'

Somewhat summarized, that comprised the gist of our conversation. I suppose it lasted about ten minutes. A few of the nearest operators tilted perplexed at me. Were they mystified or impressed, I wonder? A little thought, and they could have soothed this woman with the same deft strokes: not the slightest raising of the voice or stabs of the keypad that she'd evoked from previous operators. I smiled back simplistically - like Tom the cabin boy in 'Captain Pugwash' - then I turned to address the next customer who'd popped onto the screen.

It's true: even the most belligerent caller failed to raise my hackles. In fact, the effect was precisely the reverse. To me an irate customer presented a challenge. I even relished it. I'd think: silly prick making a fuss about so-and-so, I'll humour them, show them respect, grant them a free call, make their day… shock them back to reality with a dose of unforeseen pleasantries and generosity (after all, it wasn't anything of mine I was giving away). With due care at such times to avoid a superior or patronising tone, I thus, by listening, sympathising, apologising (as our training emphasised we should always do), offering a free call (not emphasised in training), cheering-up an incensed caller… all this was a joy and really a cinch. Afterwards - and I was always successful (it was merely a matter of degree) - I'd experience an immense inner warmth, a distinct sense of fulfilment.

You see, in my mind, to rescue some sad soul from the pit of despair, or from just plain agitation, or from an irrational enragement at the telephone company - or even a rational one - would be to imbue the world with a little more placidity and contentment. Cost, or any other consideration, did not enter into it; so far as I was concerned, such issues were irrelevant. The sole object was to create happiness where none existed, to increase it where it already thrived.

This could also be achieved by offering some new unimagined thrill to a bunch of kids as I've mentioned - how delightful for me to hear them chuckling and shouting as they crowded around a payphone, how riveting for them to discover this curious outlandish operator who taunted them with riddles and joked with them as they jostled and gabbled between payphones under his control. (Instead of vandalising payphones, I'd contend, those kids would have fervently protected them).

On the other hand, one might provide a few moments of astonished delight for some poor dope-head attempting to converse with a relative in another continent for only a few pence. And, well, if I could just….. after all, what was it to me? And what could be simpler? You can imagine how my thoughts evolved...

One day, not for the first time, I remembered one of those wonderful innovative 'Wednesday Play''s from the 70s. (They possessed a curious indelible quality, like they triggered an inherent antediluvian myth deep in the psyche). The one that came to mind this time involved a milkman whose employer had instructed him to sell a new product: 'Vito-moo'. But the milkman felt sorry for the poor people on his milk-round who could barely afford even to buy milk. So instead of selling the Vito-moo, this benevolent milkman gave it away - what was it to him?

When his employer sacked him, a public outcry ensued: people were missing their free Vito-moo. (I'm filling-in here for gaps in my memory, hence this rendition may not be entirely accurate). And the public, in protest, boycotted the new milkman. They sung the praises of the sacked milkman, and cursed his employer. The company was forced to re-appoint their 'good Samaritan' who was instructed to give away more Vito-moo in order to re-establish trade and goodwill. What happened in the end escapes me now - I think the firm went bust and everyone lost their job. Probably a rival company stepped in, or perhaps by then people had resorted to supermarket milk.

Whether the 'Vito-moo' play influenced my approach at the telephone exchange, is anyone's guess. I remember recalling and wondering about the play at the time, and though I did wonder too how much money my actions might be costing BT, it also occurred to me that I could actually be making them richer: Customers impressed by my response might have commended BT to others, declaring how helpful they had been at a difficult moment, or of how the operator's response had been so eccentric and amusing, brightening a dull moment, cheering a gloomy day. Perhaps the service would be used the more for it, or new customers switch from another supplier?

But of everything else that happened there, my training period was the most bizarre of all. The group I was assigned to comprised three women and four blokes - all but me in their late teens. A couple of the blokes were as mischievously curious as I at their age, and even bolder. The training supervisor, a jovial easy-going sort, announced during her concluding session that us novices were free to spend the afternoon calling whoever we liked - that is: official bodies, not friends, as way of satisfying any outstanding curiosities. In this sense, the world, so it seemed, lay briefly at our feet. We were told that no metering or budget existed that might limit calls from the exchange. And while we enjoyed access to an enormous database - comprising the telephone numbers of a great range of destinations, including official ones normally restricted to legitimate use only (in response to a bona fide request) - right now we could use any of them at will.

We had ended the morning session with calls to and from ships and aircraft. Aircraft were the least engaging as they could only be called from air-traffic-control through a centre in the West Country. Ships, on the other hand have names. And every ship is registered with a country to whose laws the ship and its crew must be seen to adhere. Now, a ship could be called directly anywhere in the world via one of three (or is it four?) geo-stationary satellites. If the caller knew where the ship was likely to be, then you'd look-up the satellite code for that Sea or Ocean, then the number for the ship, and when finally connected ask to speak to the individual requested. If no reply was forthcoming, you'd try a different Ocean. And the call duration began when the requested individual reached the phone.

Sometimes a caller would ask to be connected to a naval vessel. The database held unique codes for these, separate and different from civilian ships. The database held information on every registered ship. Country of registration appeared in shortened form, such as LI for Liberia, GNB for Guinea Bissau. I mention these two for good reason. They are both minute countries on the north-west coast of Africa. Both have governments that are internationally insignificant, charge minuscule registration fees, and having no real infrastructure are not only incapable of enforcing much in the way of laws, but have few laws anyway - at least, so I believe.

As is commonly known, Liberia is highly popular for ship registration, especially among merchant shipping which naturally will always seek to maximise freedom from responsibilities and red-tape that make for civilisation. But who has even heard of Guinea Bissau? Well, that's where the UK's navel vessels are registered. The admiralty are loath to admit it, and will appoint spokespersons to spout all kinds of improbable lies and nonsense to put you off the scent. But the only restrictions their ships must comply with are those bestowed by the government of Guinea Bissau… Again, so I believe.

So here was this guy, a mere teenager, training to be an operator at the Hastings telephone exchange, who'd walked in off the street two weeks earlier bedecked in charity-shop rags, passing a little English and arithmetic test that the average 12-year-old would sneer at, and here he was arguing with top security brass at the MoD, at Plymouth, Portsmouth, going the rounds through the admiralty, Whitehall bignuts and all, to satisfy his - and admittedly, all of our - curiosity! And did he lead those high grade pricks a merry dance that Thursday afternoon? I'll say! Can I ever forget? Some of them quaked, I'm certain. 'Why Guinea Bissau?' replied Portsmouth, echoing our brave hero's query, 'Why Guinea Bissau? We'll… we'll get back to you. Yes, we'll call you back.' And 20 long minutes later: 'Er GNB means er, Government Navy Boat. Got that? Absolutely NOT Guinea Bissau…' Several plummy accents at several locations insisted, beyond the bounds of rational concern, that GNB bore no reference whatever to anywhere in Africa. More than a few drops, I had the impression, were sweated that day at the MoD. Whitehall refused to give, and passed our persistent colleague from office to office until he arrived back where he began. A senior supervisor took some enquiries as to the origin of the calls our brave colleague was making, and justified them in the name of training. No-one could argue with that - could they? What heights can be reached, what deeds accomplished where training or safety is cited...

But instead of deterring our mischievous activity, the authenticity checks only encouraged it, and soon several of us had leapt onto the proverbial bandwagon. At other times one might receive lavish invites from rich lonely widows, to join them for afternoon tea, Sunday lunch, evening dinner… '…and do bring your… did you say boyfriend? Gosh! Well, I really am very broadminded, you know… my husband was in the navy, young man; rear admiral!' ….or it could even be raving 20-year olds looking for wild times.

So much for my little excursion into the phone network, and my vain - though not altogether misplaced, I think - efforts to ameliorate some of the rough edges that life dishes out to an unlucky few; and so much also to my attempts to bring a sparkle where otherwise is drab and grey. What I did was dead easy - to do otherwise would have involved more work - but most of us, I suppose, do our bit, what we can in this short life, to improve if possible what we and our fellow kin have been landed with.

Our ability to order our lives and steer our own course may not be large, but there's room for initiative and innovation in every event. Individual decisions and actions send ripples beyond those around us and with whom we come into contact; if we can recognise how these have real influence, how the world can be left more joyous and exciting, then something has been achieved - it does not have to be the mean, all-grabbing constricted approach as the mercantile system that governs us would have it. The choice is ours - it truly is.

The Exchange now? Well, it's been gone a while. The place has received a fresh veneer and has become a bright new college. So yet another mini era fades into history - like those tube trains when they hurtle into darkness, the echoes fading as they recede, to leave a faint distant roar full of sepulchral mystery, and us lonely and stranded and isolated, as, essentially, we all are - until distracted by another passing carnival that hurtles into frame.