I’m sure, like me, you’ve heard people being referred to as being “of their time”. It’s usually to excuse something about their lives that today we would find reprehensible or unacceptable. The Me Too movement is just the latest manifestation of our long painful progress towards the concept that all people should be treated equally regardless of gender, colour, creed or orientation. And that it’s not alright just to sweep it all under the carpet and leave the burden of getting over it on the victim’s shoulders.
Does it make a difference when we discover that our heroes have feet of clay? When we learn that Charles Dickens had a secret mistress, Nelly Ternan; or that Chaucer is likely to have raped a woman, one Cecilia Chaumpaigne; or that the charismatic John F Kennedy turned out to be a terrible womaniser and numbered Marilyn Monroe among his probable conquests? I don’t know… Perhaps one does look differently at an author’s work when you understand more about the dark side of where it came from. Or can the truth, the art, stand independently from the artist? I am mindful of a couple of quotes from the late, great George Harrison:
I play a little guitar, write a few tunes, make a few movies, but none of that’s really me. The real me is something else.
Forget the bad parts, you don’t need them. Just take the music, the goodness, because its the very best of me and the part I give most willingly.
I suppose I’m largely content to go with that and read a book or listen to music on the understanding that I am sharing a vision, a truth, wherever it might have come from. That is valid in itself. If I know or learn something detrimental about the writer, that may or may not cause me to look differently at the work. After all, many of the lessons we learn in life come from our mistakes, our dark times. And I still feel inspired by the words of JFK when he declared in his inaugural speech, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”. Whether or not he actually ‘borrowed’ that phrase from his old headmaster or was a less than faithful husband, they are nonetheless stirring words, worth repeating.
And I still think of Charles Dickens as a great Victorian novelist who cared about the social conditions of his day and wrote most movingly about the plight of the poor. If he wasn’t in truth the unblemished family man he’d have you believe, he did on the other hand engage in many philanthropic deeds including setting up a home for “fallen women”. Perhaps I will read the cosy fireside scenes with a somewhat more cynical eye and make a mental nod to the hidden Ms Ternan, but I can still enjoy these marvellous books and wonderful writing.
As to more contemporary transgressions. With each new revelation about the movie industry, I find there are now certain films I can never watch in the same way again, if at all. Fiction or not, I don’t want to be drawn into falling in love with that handsome leading man, or a director who, it turns out, sees sex as a weapon to be wielded. These are more than private indiscretions, this is an abuse of power, a whole rotten system which needs to be called out for what it is. Me too!
So I suppose I’m saying that moral ambiguity does surely make a difference and does force you to encompass a wider picture of what you thought you knew. You might think “How amazing that someone like that could produce something so beautiful” or “No wonder he says that, look what was happening in his life when he wrote it”. Of course all this only highlights how little we really know of another person’s soul, of their motivations – someone like what, exactly? We see everything through the prism of our own experience, understanding and yes, preconceptions. Not to mention what we read in the press or social media.
What about right and wrong, black and white? Yes, there’s that too. If a thing’s wrong then it’s wrong – isn’t it? It’s wrong to kill. Even if it’s in self-defence or to save someone’s life? It’s wrong to steal. Even if it’s to feed your starving family? It’s wrong to lie. Is there anyone who hasn’t bent the truth or concealed it in order to protect the innocent? I suppose what I’m saying is that I always want to know the WHY; the story behind the headline, the circumstances, the mitigating factors, the actual facts and why they are being presented in the way they are.
Here’s a final headline for you to ponder: BODY OF PROSTITUTE FOUND IN ALLEY. I remember being stopped in my tracks by that one. I suddenly found myself feeling angry that some poor woman whose life had been cut short in the most brutal way possible had to suffer the final indignity of that heartless and judgemental headline. I found myself wondering what had happened to her in life to have brought her to the point where she was selling her body to men in a back alley. She could have been someone’s mother or sister or daughter or wife. She was a woman.
The paper could have chosen any of those words to describe her; they could have said ‘female body’. They could have had some consideration for the family who might have had to read about their loved one in such dismissive terms. But no, they went for the sensational. They summed her up in an attention grabbing headline for the sake of selling more papers and making the rest of us feel quite comfortable and safe, because, after all, it hadn’t happened to US, but to one of THEM.
I thought I’d share a little mediation exercise with you. You might find it helps you focus when you have too many thoughts swirling around your brain. I suggest you read this through first and then try it out for yourself when you have the odd five or ten minutes to spare to take some time out for yourself.
First, switch off the radio or any other distractions and just sit quietly with your eyes closed, breathing slowly. Turn your attention to the weight of you as you sit on your chair; feel the seat beneath you, your feet pressing against the floor; your legs, back, arms, your chest moving up and down with each breath. Acknowledge any small aches and pains – sometimes I will gently roll my head if my neck is a little stiff – and then pass on…
Next, breath in deeply and notice any smells in the air and, closely related, tastes in your mouth. Perhaps you can both taste and smell toothpaste if you’ve just cleaned your teeth. Or the lingering flavour of a delicious meal. Or a faint scent of cut grass coming in through the open window. Allow your mind to briefly identify the tastes and aromas, and then pass on…
Keeping your eyes shut, open your ears to the sounds that surround you. Is there a clock ticking, or other sounds made by your house? Can you hear peoples’ voices in other rooms or perhaps passing by your window? If you can hear traffic is it individual vehicles or the distant roar of a motorway? I often find I’m holding my breath as I concentrate on allowing the tiniest noises to come to me. Note each sound as you recognise it, then let it go and pass on…
Finally, open your eyes and try to observe what’s in front of you as if you were seeing it for the first time. What colours and shapes do you notice? Cast your gaze around the room – does something catch your eye that you’ve never really looked at properly before? Today, I found my attention drawn to the vase of sunflowers sitting on my table. I noticed that their bright sunny colour made everything else in the room look quite dull.
Take a deep breath and for a short time just enjoy that feeling of being entirely in the moment. If you’re like me, none of the tasks or issues you might be tussling with will have gone away, but somehow you’ll find yourself looking at them with a fresh perspective. It’s as if focusing on the five physical senses frees up the subconscious mind to get to work like a magical sixth sense that shows you the solutions you knew were there all along, but were too busy to see.
I’m having a bitty week. It’s often like that when I come to the end of a sequence of posts which involve a lot of research-gathering and thinking. Not to mention trawling through and transcribing old letters, which is rather time-consuming as you can imagine.
So, as I was sitting on the bus yesterday, letting my mind wander and mulling over what to write next, it came to me that one of my favourite pastimes on bus journeys is to try and predict which seats new passengers will choose when they get on board. In fact I’m sure there’s a learned psychological treatise that could be written on this very subject. Let me just check with Professor Google…
Yup, as I thought, I’ve found an article in the Daily Telegraph, 19 June. You can apparently divine people’s personality by where they sit on a double decker bus, and in fact it might be a better indicator than those psychometric tests that companies spend large amounts of money on to ensure they recruit the right people. It seems they would get superior results just jumping on to public transport, according to a study done by one Dr Tom Fawcett of Salford University. This comes as no surprise to me as I have spent years, even decades, observing these very phenomena. If only I’d thought to write it all up, someone might have given me a PhD for it!
Anyway, according to Dr Tom, bus passengers fall into seven distinct groups. Those at the front on the top deck are generally forward thinkers and those at the back are rebellious types who do not like their personal space being invaded. Sitting in the middle are independent thinkers – usually younger to middle-aged passengers more likely to read a newspaper or listen to a personal music player. On the bottom deck at the front tend to be gregarious meeters-and-greeters while those in the middle are “strong communicators”. Travellers who automatically head for the rear downstairs are said to be risk-takers who like to sit on elevated seats because it makes them feel important. The final group are chameleons – travellers who do not care where they sit because they feel they can fit in anywhere.
I wouldn’t disagree with any of that, especially the bit about those who want to sit up high and lord it over everyone else. My own ‘study’ is rather less scientific, focusing as it does on my ‘where are they going to sit’ guessing game. Which, though I say so myself and don’t have the stats to back it up, is usually fairly accurate. (You’re just going to have to take my word for it). Also, you have to note that my research these days is based on observations made on the single-decker country bus which runs between my small town and the nearby county town, so perhaps not subject to the parameters imposed by City travel on double decker buses.
Not that I haven’t done my fair share of that in my time, having lived in both Glasgow and London AND negotiated both of those fine cities’ public transport systems with young children in tow. I notice that Dr Tom’s study doesn’t seem to include young children and the parents thereof, which might possibly change the dynamic somewhat. Let me assure you that given the choice, young children will always want to climb the stairs and sit at the front of the bus, no matter how much baggage, including pushchair, their parent might have to haul up said stairs. I don’t know if this means that children are forward thinkers, or if they just enjoy being able to see all round from up high, instead of always having to try and see over the heads of taller humans.
I’m talking, by the way, about the days before bus companies felt any need to provide a space where you could just push your sleeping toddler complete with pushchair on board and park them in the designated space for the duration of the journey. In the 1970’s and 80’s we were expected to fold up the pushchair and put it in the luggage rack – always too small – whilst trying to find seats for several small bodies, possibly a bit tired and sticky from a day out in the park, and one of them more than a bit cross from having been wakened from a lovely snooze in their buggy. You’d be surprised how many of those gregarious ‘meeters-and-greeters’ or ‘strong communicators’ on the lower deck fail to make eye contact in these circumstances, and, well, you couldn’t really expect anything of the risk-takers at the back could you? And if you’d had to go and find seats upstairs, well good luck to anyone trying to read their paper, or not have their personal space invaded. I think that one must conclude that children are the archetypal chameleons, neither knowing nor caring whether they fit in or not.
Lets get back to the country bus and my guessing game – carried out from my own preferred vantage point in the second row on the driver’s side, where I like to sit in the aisle seat with my bag in the space beside me, and my deaf ear facing the window. Let the observations begin. First of all, individual people will generally go and sit in any available empty seats so that they have a space to themselves – unless of course they spot a friend in which case they will go and sit beside them. This happens quite a lot on this congenial local bus with its regular patrons. Myself, I tend not to know many of the people getting on – I’ve only been living in the district for about 6 or 7 years, not the several generations necessary to be considered a local in a small Ayrshire town! Usually older folk stay nearer the front, younger ones like to go up the back where no-one can see what they’re up to, especially schoolchildren, who must also be rather deaf because they seem to feel the need to conduct their conversations at the top of their voices.
As the journey progresses and the bus starts to fill up, my theory is that new passengers tend to subliminally seek out someone to sit beside that is most like them – i.e. women beside women, men beside men, older vs younger, flashily vs more soberly dressed, etc. Oldies like me will have already started to double up on the front seats rather than have to battle their way up to the back of a shoogly bus negotiating the twists and turns of a country road. At some point I will have quietly moved over to the window position – it’s a point of honour with me not to have to be asked to move – I feel it is bad bus etiquette not to anticipate the needs of my fellow passengers.
Another point of etiquette is that everyone is generally very good about leaving the front seats free for the aged and infirm or for young mums (and it is usually mums) with babies in buggies. I always feel that the bus company should put up friendlier notices regarding buggies – they make a great fuss about how we should leave room for any wheelchairs (quite rare), but the ones about buggies (much more common) are more along the lines of grudgingly agreeing to them being carried at the driver’s discretion. I think they would do well to remember that these young parents are actually fare-paying passengers, unlike the rest of us oldies who gaily skip on and off the bus waving our free bus pass at the driver. Although ‘skip’, I have to admit is somewhat of an optimistic term in this case.
Were you wondering why I am deaf in my right ear? Well even if you weren’t, I’m going to tell you – I fell off a bus when I was 9 and burst my eardrum! And it wasn’t just any old bus, it was my Dad’s bus. He used to very occasionally take one of us for a trip to the terminus along whatever route he happened to be on at the time. It was exciting to just sit on the bus observing the other passengers coming and going (obviously the start of my data gathering activities) and watching the city go by until we eventually arrived at one of the mysterious destinations Dad used to refer to when he got home, such as Balornock, Shettleston, Penilee. I don’t know that the actual terminus could ever live up to my imagination, but just the sound of their names seemed exotic and mysterious to me and I was filled with curiosity, as I would always be when visiting somewhere new, about what it would be like to live in this different place and whether it would be better than my home in Govan.
These trips weren’t as unsupervised as it sounds. These were the old style buses with a driver and a conductor, who were normally a regular pair. Dad’s conductor was one John Mackie and they remained friendly for years afterwards even after they no longer worked together. In fact it was John Mackie who eventually bought our flat in Govan and paid the instalments direct to my Dad once a month until the outstanding amount was all paid up. So, it would have been this very John Mackie who was the conductor who issued me with a ticket and kept an eye on me as I sat up front behind my Dad, ensconced as he was in the driver’s cab. I had strict instructions not to lose the ticket and to show it to any inspector if asked. I don’t know if these little jaunts would have been exactly against regulations, but I was taking no chances and duly kept tight hold of my ticket throughout the journey.
Further instructions involved getting off the bus. There was a bus stop just round the corner from where we lived off the Govan Road and, under John Mackie’s supervision, I was supposed to alight there and go straight home where my Mum would be waiting at the appointed time. But on the occasion in question, something went wrong and the bus started to pull away from the stop with me still on board. I totally panicked and jumped off the moving bus.
I have absolutely no memory of subsequent events because the next thing I knew I was recovering consciousness in hospital. I rather think I allowed it to be thought that I’d either fallen or been pushed off the bus platform, rather than admit the truth, which was that I was trying to emulate people I’d seen grabbing the pole and nimbly jumping on or off the moving vehicle (or was that Danny Kaye in the film Merry Andrew...?) I obviously didn’t appreciate the physics involved and I have an impression that rather than going with the direction of travel, I just jumped off the back in the opposite direction and ended up unconscious on the road. I can only imagine the terrible fright I gave my poor Dad and Mum and Mr Mackie. Fortunately I was given a clean bill of health and sent home. It wasn’t until months, or possibly years later that it was realised that I had no hearing in my right ear and that the fall had burst my eardrum.
Didn’t put me off buses though, and I think I was even allowed to make further journeys in my Dad’s double decker! Today, bus travel seems to me like almost the perfect way to get about. Basically it’s a free half an hour or so to stare out of the window, ponder one’s fellow passengers or get on with one’s book. Someone else doing the driving and navigating and finding a place to park – what’s not to love? The icing on the cake is the odd occasion when one is accompanied by a small grandchild to whom the whole thing is a great adventure. The modern child is more used to being ferried around in the family car, so the humble bus, or indeed train, is a great novelty to be enjoyed in wide eyed wonder, much to the entertainment of their fellow passengers, no matter where they are sitting.