Expect The Unexpected

The Arts


Surprise at the unexpected is one of the most delightful things I can think of. I remember watching children’s faces when they peered into a room at the British Museum and saw Anthony Gormley’s installation featuring hundreds of little clay people looking back at them. For a moment they felt like gods.

The delight of children is surprise in its purest form, but as adults we become harder to trick. The arrival of the Internet removed a lot of the unexpected; people document every waking moment on Facebook, take selfies on travels, use Google, substitute the description of experience and simply looking around with the instant gratification of the screen.

I was first truly surprised by a book when I was about ten, reading ‘My Family and Other Animals’ by Gerald Durrell, which combined natural history and travel with a family memoir. It seemed impossibly exotic to me. I could not begin to imagine what the island of Corfu was like.

Travel was robbed of much surprise, but when tourists step from the beaten track the sensation returns. I was in a constant state of awe travelling through Jordan, being treated to sights and conversations I had never before imagined.

When we read books, we grow bored if the element of surprise is not there. Flat prose, predictable stories, overused words, plot twists copied from television. I couldn’t finish ‘The Girl on the Train’ because its prose style was so hackneyed. But for those whose lives contain no elements of surprise, I suppose it read like a reflection and was therefore enjoyable.Instead I read ‘The Governor’s Wife’ by Norman Collins, which was filled with the unexpected, in both prose and story.

Identification becomes a problem when you personally fit outside the norm. While I appreciated that the TV show ‘The Office’ was clever I never found it amusing because I’ve never worked in a proper office.

As a school kid I and my classmates were obsessed with Monty Python because of its sheer unpredictability – it’s still pretty surprising now. If you watch ‘Mr Phillips’ and ‘A Hijacking’ one after the other you find another kind of surprise that reflects differences in our culture. While both cover true events in which ships were taken over by pirates, the former focusses on the bravery of a heroic central figure (Tom Hanks) and the latter concentrates on the appalling way in which big business is forced to trade lives for cargo; Hollywood versus Europe, personality VS politics. Both are valid, but to me the latter was truly unexpected.

They say 90% of the world is asleep and 10% remains in a state of perpetual amazement. Does it get harder to stay surprised as you age? I find now that the simple pleasures can offer the most moving surprises. I took the photo at the top of tis page from my balcony as a girl danced in the street. Yesterday, several teachers passed me pulling half a dozen train carriages full of delighted children. A man passed with his dog riding pillion on his bike, both wearing goggles. The local clown shop sells elongated leather shoes for professional circus performers. Magic tricks still confound and delight.


Recently the movie ‘Victoria’ (reviewed on this site) delighted me with its sheer ingenuity. Then there’s Mads Mikkelsen as the compulsive masturbator and his hare-lipped brothers in ‘Men and Chicken’, which plays like a cross between ‘Dr Frankenstein’, ‘Dr Moreau’ and ‘The Three Stooges’, but is unlike any film I’ve ever seen. How do European films stay so utterly surprising? I think they do it by observing human nature and not demographics, and by encouraging you to side with not the beautiful people but human underdogs.

Perhaps the most unexpected moments, hen, arise from situations in which humans act like – well, humans.

7 comments on “Expect The Unexpected”

  1. John Howard says:

    I think I was twelve when I first read ‘My family and Other Animals’. Like you I was captivated by it but luckily, because of my fathers job, I was living in Gibraltar at the time and had spent half of the previous 12 years living in Malta so I was able to imagine what the island was like but that still didn’t stop me from wanting to go there and experience it. ( Did manage some 40 years later ).
    Maybe it was because we used to come backwards and forwards to England every couple of years that made me appreciate what I had. Probably the best childhood going. I think that because of those early experiences I am always willing to try something new.
    I’m also lucky enough to have a grandson, currently four ( his favourite number by the way ) and am experiencing the world though his thoughts which is just joyful. Of course part of the Grandad experience is feeding him the necessary tall story’s that I can just see him taking in, examining and getting the expression that means “are you sure grandad or just mad”.
    So, still being surprised and being human… Now have a smile on my face, thanks for that admin

  2. John Howard says:

    P.S. Love the top picture, can almost feel the warm still air and it makes me feel quite tranquil. ( It was probably taken at the coldest part of the day and there is a main road just out of shot.. 🙂 )

  3. admin says:

    No John, as you surmise the air was hot and still, and there’s no noisy traffic, just the sound of the parrots in the trees in a nearby park.

  4. Wayne Mook says:

    No things still surprise me, there was a beautiful sunset over Manchester today as I walked home which just stopped me in my tracks. I find I’m more open emotionally now than I was when I was younger, things bring me to tears and joy easier and that amazes me. Intellectually I may not be amazed as much but I’m certainly more amazed emotionally, which more than makes up. Having said that I was reading a book Ghost Cities of China which was wonderful & opened my eyes to something different, how cities are built and then ‘vitalised’, plus the different experimental cities. It’s an amazing and daunting project, not all the bad as some have shown it. Like yourself simple pleasures amaze me, too.


  5. Chris Hughes says:

    It isn’t easy but the most important thing is to keep looking up and round – you see beautiful things, funny things, sad and downright bizarre things. Life is constantly amazing – even if you do have a good book to read!

  6. Vivienne says:

    I suppose there are beautiful things and surprising things – but you can hardly expect to be surprised unless you look. Like Wayne, I’m entranced by sunsets, and things like double rainbows, full moons lighting up clouds. But some people simply don’t look. It amazes me that people in trains crossing the Thames don’t even glance out of the window.

  7. Helen Martin says:

    The whole point of trains is to watch the country (or city) side. There are people with neighbourhood allotments under our Skytrain and I watch to see what they’re up to. Going in to town you can watch the mountains change, watch people, especially watch people and you can see some of the most moving and disturbing sights. Skateboarders bright my heart into my mouth sometimes. Vivienne and Wayne are right – you won’t see if you don’t look. On the other hand, a good book can be pleasurable on a long run.

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