'"The two most engaging powers of an author, are to make new things familiar, and familiar things new."
This quote, attributed to Samuel Johnson, came to mind this morning when I was strolling the Istiklal in Istanbul, a rather characterless modern shopping street (by Istanbul standards anyway).
The quote popped into my head because on this street old trams saunter up and down with visitors standing by to take photos. It's interesting, I thought, that they photograph this tram while the normal, modern tram passes on other lines ignored. And for good reason.
The trams travel on what's known as the 'nostalgia tram line'. These are old trams from the early 20th century are brimming with charm. A timeless charm. A style that can be found in cafes, restaurants, hotels all across Turkey and indeed other parts of the region.
People like that style, always have done and always will. It is timeless and that is what we seeks in our writings or videos or paintings.
Even in interior design...
Drop it if it's hot
I'm about to move into my new home and we need to decorate. In my desperation, I watched a few minutes of a home design MasterClass with a chap called Corey Damen Jenkins, who is as dynamic in his tastes and colour choices as I am not.
His aesthetic wasn't my cup of tea, but he did say something important at the start: "Consider dropping it if it's hot."
Why? Because that means this fad will soon pass and you'll be forced to change up in no time. Aiming for timelessness is how you evade the grip of fashion.
Director Mike Leigh told author Margaret Heffernan about how a good idea withstands trends.
"I know the premise will come. It’ll come from my own preoccupations . . . eventually! I’m old enough to remember before 1967, the Abortion Act, when people had unwanted pregnancies, though I was never responsible for one myself. I just remember that. And for about forty years, I had this notion of making a film about that. And eventually I did, in Vera Drake, but not till 2004. But why then, not earlier, not later? I don’t know. I don’t really care!"
The old trams withstood the judgement of time because of the work that went into them. No doubt it took a lot of technical know-how, ingenuity, as well as artists and others makers to make those trams become reality.
They carry a beautiful aesthetic because they are designed to not only carry people across town but to be something to look at while they pass pedestrians. To please the eye and add a little dash of beauty to the day as you trudge through the snow.
Today's trams, on the other hand, are functional. Factory made, designed to be cleaned easily and squeeze in as many passenger as possible, for the lowest cost possible. A means to an end. Function over form.
New trams are how-to write guides while the old trams are the books talked about in those how-to write guides.
Stuck in time
It looks like we're stuck in time. Pseudo content - content about content - is starting to reign supreme while retro design - designs of based on old designs - exist everywhere.
It is a curious time to be sure. So what can be done to make a dent in this trend towards the bland?
Mistakes. Waiting. Trust in the process. Avoiding the middle.
Timelessness comes by daring to just let things play out and follow whichever paths appear en route.
In the age of optimisation and big data, the desire to measure art creates predictability, like-for-like models. What this doesn't allow for is chance.
Virginia Woolf observed that in the work of Joyce and Chekhov they leave questions "to sound on and on after the story is ended", flooding us "with a view of infinite possibilities".
It seems hard to find a space to do that in a time of empty aesthetics.
We need to create space for getting lost down strange paths, trusting that we will find a surprise destination at some point, while resisting that strong urge to follow this week's trend. To drop what's hot in search of what is timeless.
Difficult, but surely not impossible.