Tuesday, 1 December 2009

The Looking-Glass Window

Be careful when you look in the mirror. You never know who might be looking back.

The woman who used to own our house must have been very paranoid. There's only one window in the building that gives out onto the street, and she had it filled with a sheet of unbreakable reflective glass, flush with the wall and fixed forever shut. A looking-glass for the people.

And the people do look in. We live in a quartier populaire, which means that our end of town is chock-full of all sorts (though it can also be polite code for 'dodgy district'). Walk five minutes one way and there's a college and a vast music school. Walk the other way and you'll soon pass the homeless shelter, and -- once the sun's gone down -- some very friendly young ladies. Moving quickly on, you can't miss the enormous hospital with its busy helipad, a multi-ethnic shopping street, a swimming pool, the biggest crèche in France and a dojo, all within a short walk of our house and its public mirror. So when I say people look in, I really do mean a great many people.

But when they stop to pick their teeth, refresh their make-up or explore their noses, doesn't it occur to them that they might have an audience? My two small boys are sometimes just the other side, laughing hysterically as madame vainly tries to eliminate swimming-pool hair, or as monsieur delves in his beard for a lost piece of Brie. And some people love to just stop and linger there, giving themselves alluring looks and sweeping back their manes. And that's just the men!

You can tell the looking-glass window is well known, because people walk past it with their eyes fixed on their reflections the whole way, as if they had assumed the narcissistic, three-quarter profile position several steps before, anxious not miss not a moment of self adulation.

I wanted to take photos of this vanity fair, to make a comedy montage souvenir for the future, but I have better things to do than lying in wait in my sitting room with the camera on standby. Instead, my family and I just treat it as a source of spontaneous entertainment, our very own Punch and Judy stand. That, or draw the curtains.

Of course, there's some glib metaphor value in all this. As writers we reflect ourselves in our writing, no matter how much we try to disguise it with lurid characterisation and exotic settings. The page is our mirror, and we like to see ourselves there, do we not? But as with the looking-glass window, there'll usually be someone else watching back, someone we must never forget as we write. Though we may never spot them, our readers see everything -- warts, self-indulgence and all.


  1. Thomas,

    It sounds like a fascinating set-up to a story or novel to me ...

  2. Oh yes! I had momentarily forgotten the hours of innocent fun to be had from your window. It aways brings out a strong juvenile desire in me to press my face up to the glass directly in front of the hapless narcissist, gurning hideously...but that might lead to fainting or heart attacks...and maybe is not the way for small boys to see their grandmother behaving.

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  4. Its a natural and healthy human reaction to look into a mirror . Its those who cant look , for fear of not liking what they see that we should focus on

  5. This post was brilliant! I wish we had a mirror window--what a fabulous people-watching tool. I agree that it's an awesome set-up for a novel.

    I try to keep myself out of my stories, but I know I slip into characters now and then.

  6. Too funny. I'm with Simon, this is a great set-up for a story.

    I know, we'll call it, "Through the Looking Glass."

    It's so true that readers can see a lot of a writer in his writing. I try not to think about that when I'm writing.

  7. I want a reflective mirror window!

    Very good post, but I'm with the Russian formalists and Roland Barthes - don't look beyond the text, the author is dead!

  8. What a wonderful story. I'm with your mum though... I would want to peer back!

  9. Thanks for all the comments. It is a good set up for something, isn't it. It's already in the box of tricks for later.

    The temptation to scare people is strong. Although the glass is reflective, it isn't a true mirror, especially at night with the lights on inside. But even in the day, if you look closely, you can see vague things inside the room. Therefore, if someone inside the room pushed their face up close to the glass, they could impose some of their features on the reflection of the person looking in. Spooky!

    The one time I tried something like this, a little old lady banged on the window and shouted at me. How dare I spoil her viewing pleasure!

  10. Your window is priceless. What a unique form
    of entertainment. This is definitely book material.


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