October 28, 2007
I recorded the Penguin audio-book of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World this week. Written in the 1930s, its grotesque, fantastic prophesies ring unsettlingly true. It’s left me wondering about “the old days”. I was once loitering in the foyer of the Palladium Theatre, and saw a black and white photo of a huge crowd awaiting, outside the theatre, the arrival of Frank Sinatra. Somehow, the crowd looked “civilised”. Perhaps it was because the fashion, at that time, was for men and women to wear hats, not hoodies. There was nothing mob-like about the crowd. No sense that a fight might break out at any minute. So were human-beings more polite way-back-when?
“I’m always surprised by the kindness of strangers” are words I’ve never used in relation to living in London. But where does the aggression come from? Are there laylines of negativity streaming our capital, ripe for our tapping? On the way to the recording, I spent all of 60 seconds observing incoming commuters on the platform at Cannon Street station. Statistically, how many smiling faces would you expect me to have seen in that minute? Indeed, scrub the smile, how many non-scowling faces? There was none. Every single person looked miserable. But isn’t it more energy-consuming to adopt the state of pissed-off-ness? I write as no saint. If someone bangs into me on the underground, my default is to deliver the most withering look of contempt. My default is to find fault. I’ve tried doing the opposite, and the rewards are worth it. The exchange of a smile with a stranger has some unquantifiable effect on a person. The smile hangs around in your mind for a while. A silent, shared moment.
So what? What’s the point of this particular musing? Am I out to change the world? Make it a better place? No; that’s not my job spec. But I think it’s worth pointing out that my (our?) default behaviour when dealing with strangers should, from time to time, be revisited, revised, poked, and prodded. It’s hard work keeping open that tap of negativity. Take a break, take a chance. I think, deep down, no-one wants conflict. The Capital doles out its Punishment, and we lap it up. If you’ve ever taken a bus or train in a village or town out of London, it’s actually quite nice. People chat and laugh about tiny things. Things that tickle. Instead of elbowing irksome strangers aside, our funny bones could be used to better, braver effect.