The other day as I came home, I passed one of the neighbouring young men, propped up against a wall, deep in his mobile and I remarked that he was just posing there to show off his terrific legs and wonderful tan.
He accompanied me up the street, telling me about a holiday that hadn’t quite worked out, but it would, and various other things. When we had done that, I said “Now let me tell you something nice” and told him about something that had just happened to me.
“You’ve done that about six times” he said. “I’m a bit pissed off, something is wrong. You listen, there is exchange – real exchange – and then you tell one of these stories. Do you go out looking for them ?” I shook my head. “But I am open to them.” One of the best lessons I imbibed about journalism and indeed life was observation.
Don’t be afraid to see what you see. I am fascinated by what people can decide not to notice. Good or bad, I am interested in it all (which isn’t to say there is always an answer – because sometimes there isn’t). But you can put the interest down to my mother whom I asked when she was my age, what her secret was. “Enthusiasm” said Ethel Maude Taylor (nee Burdett, known as Jane) “is worth 100 times any cream that was ever invented.” And I would add – if you are open to people – and it doesn’t follow that you have to be open to everybody, or that you can’t change your mind – they open to you and the nice bits happen. And, oh, we need them to.
Let me tell you about the opposite which is not so often mentioned. I met a couple in a restaurant where I was having lunch and the man asked me to repeat a quote he had overheard, from Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. I thought it was the nub of the book, now I would say the nub of the trilogy: “You don’t get on by being original. You don’t get on by being bright. You don’t get on by being strong. You get on by being a subtle crook.” Applies to women too. His partner asked me to meet her and when we did, I had a very strong feeling of invasion, that I was hearing about a third of what I would be asked to hear, and I didn’t like any of it. It is impossible to convey in a few words, how repelled I was, I could do it with a gesture. I didn’t want any of it anywhere near me so I summoned fire. I am a fire sign and I visualised fire between us, trenches of it.
And we worked to a polite ending. He wrote to me, I burned his letter and I never heard from them again.
But the other day (as I told my young neighbour) there was a woman on the bus shouting in an Asian language into her mobile. I stuck three stops and then thought there was nothing so all-fired important waiting for me that I couldn’t take another bus, getting off beside a woman to whom I commented about people thinking that because they spoke a foreign language, they could do so at volume. “I think she was pretty disturbed” she said. “I saw her in the street before I got on the bus” and I remembered my sister’s loudly demented hostility.
So I got out at Hyde Park Corner where there are several bus stops. Along came one to the stop next to mine and I saw the driver – smack on my sight line – look into her mirror. Struggling along came a very elderly Oriental, I truly couldn’t determine more, dragging a wheelie full of shopping. The driver moved the bus with economy and elegance – I have such respect for anybody who can do that, those buses are heavy and awkward – to an adjustment alongside the kerb, lowered the entry platform and waited. She caught my eye and I applauded.
She grinned. The would be passenger got in, the driver made sure she was sitting down and gave me a little wave. I blew her a kiss. She laughed. All dumb show.
To be disposed to the good, no matter how small, is a social imperative in a troubled world. And no moral duty risks your soul.