When my brother and I were very young, he complained that I broke some of his toys, specifically toy guns (he had a super pop gun with a little cork on a piece of string – I don’t think I broke that one). I had wanted to know how they worked, so I took them apart and then couldn’t put them together again properly. I did the same with biros. I had questions that needed answers and dismantling the objects was the only way I had to find those answers. I laid all the parts out in front of me on the floor and tried to work out what each one did and how it all worked together as one machine. I was a curious child (probably in more ways than one).
Fast forward to secondary school, age 16. A boy I liked walked past me at the school gates and said ‘Hello’. My best friend and I then spent at least half an hour before school started, the whole of morning break and all the lunch hour discussing and dissecting those two syllables to see what he meant. How did he say it exactly? Where was the emphasis – on the ‘hell’ or on the ‘o’? Was it a cheery, miserable or neutral hello? Did he look at me while he said it? How did his face look? Did he smile? And so on and so on. After school I walked with my best friend up to the coach park and waited with her for her coach home, still talking about this momentous event, analysing every minute detail of the interaction that consisted of only one word. After waving my friend off I walked home and half an hour later she called me, having also got home, and we analysed the whole thing some more. Just thinking about it now is exhausting. He probably literally only meant ‘hello’ when he said ‘hello’, but we were determined to analyse it to death. We asked a lot of questions and discussed every possible interpretation. And then we both wrote lengthy diary entries about it.
Fast forward again, about another 10 years. I was working as a freelance editor and I had a lodger living with me. She liked EastEnders (a long-running UK soap opera set in the East End of London) and watched it religiously. I watched it occasionally with her and knew enough to follow the storylines but wasn’t that interested. One time, there was a scene involving a character who worked on a market stall. She was a young woman whose Dad was a taxi driver and I think the stall sold clothes. I can’t remember her name, so let’s call her Emma. Emma was standing talking to another woman and the scripted conversation was clearly the important part of the scene and was what would move the narrative on to the next stage. But I was concerned. While Emma was chatting to her friend, shoppers in the background were looking at the goods on her stall, picking them up, holding them up, putting them down again. Emma wasn’t looking. She didn’t even seem to be aware of these people. Then one of them picked up an item, brought it over and handed some cash to Emma, who reached inside her market-trader’s apron to give the shopper some change. Again, she didn’t look at what had been handed to her and didn’t count the change. How did she know that she had been paid the right sum? She didn’t even check the price of the item. With all these thoughts going round in my head and despite the fact that they were completely irrelevant to the narrative, I could keep silent no longer.
‘How does Emma know how much she takes on that stall? She’s not looking at what she’s doing. And she has no control over her stock – people could just walk off with it.’
‘What?’ said my lodger.
‘When she’s cashing up in the evening, how will she know if it’s right? How will she know which stock to re-order, as she hasn’t paid attention to what has sold?’
‘I don’t think it’s important, Alison,’ said my lodger, trying to concentrate on the next bit of the story.
Then something even worse hit me. Something close to my heart, as a freelance worker.
‘How on earth does she complete her tax return? She has no receipts! I can’t imagine her getting it right.’
By this stage, my lodger was starting to look at me strangely.
‘But of course,’ I said, with a tone of realisation, ‘her Dad is a taxi driver and is self-employed, so he will have been filling in tax returns for years and will be able to help her.’
Thus satisfied, I sat back in my chair. My lodger just shook her head and said, ‘Alison, I don’t think you’re meant to analyse it in that much detail. It’s only a story.’
Alas, the episode of EastEnders in which Emma and her Dad complete their tax returns has, to my knowledge, never been made.
But the point of the story is this. It’s good to ask questions. Curiosity is at the heart of research. We want answers to questions and whether we find those by dismantling objects to see how they work, analysing data from various angles or envisioning scenarios, we won’t stop until we get satisfactory answers. Be curious! Ask questions! And don’t worry if other people think you are odd.