1:30AM Sunday Morning 20 May 2012 Nunhead Heights
You hold open a door for someone and you expect to hear a “thank you”. And if you don’t hear a “thank you” you mumble the words to yourself. You say “Thank you” or “You’re welcome” to complete the transaction. There’s a script in your mind of what you expect people to say.
I was reminded of this today at the brilliant Nunhead Cemetery Open Day. I wrote about the Cemetery a couple of weeks back: That the completely overgrown cemetery – abandoned for years when the burial company went bust – was ruined by trying to make it un-ruined. Luckily, there is still a lot of ruin in the place to make it worth a visit. I am worried about the areas in the other partially “ruined” cemeteries in the area being reclaimed for burials: Camberwell New and Camberwell Old.]
At the Open Day ran into a woman I met at the East Dulwich Library 11-years-ago when I was a stay-at-home-dad. I still think of myself as a stay-at-home-dad only now I don’t have children to look after – the mother and the school do most of the heavy lifting. My friend reminded me of my first words to her:
“This is my son. Isn’t this the most beautiful child in the entire world?”
My internal soundtrack had people saying, upon presentation of a child under the age of five, “He is so beautiful!” or “What a gorgeous child!” Those are the sentiments that are expressed to every parent in every country in the ENTIRE WORLD: A big smile for the baby and maybe a tickle and a kiss.
She thought I was absolutely mental because every mother thinks their child is the most beautiful child in the world and why is this man telling me that?
Well, I learned that having strangers look, praise, cuddle, kiss or even notice babies isn’t the done thing in southeast London. Noticing anyone isn’t the done thing in this country.
You will tell me in the North of the country is friendlier and warmer to children and that they notice people. And by “North” you could mean Cumbria or even Camberwell [which is the next postal code up.] I think effusing over babies and children isn’t the done thing in all of England, Scotland and Wales. People here aren’t very good at noticing anything, and especially not other people’s children.
“The done thing” is a very common phrase here in the land of done things. Conversely, having a Royal Family is just “the done thing” here – let’s not think about the alternative.
I would walk down Lordship Lane with my baby trying to make the day go by. Looking after newborns involve long periods of dullness interrupted with moments of sheer panic – just like sex with me. I was very naive then. I thought the child was my baby. I was told the truth by the Mother and the Principal Registry of the Family Court.
My goals with my newborn were to try to make myself useful to the mother, who was working. I wasn’t working, at least not that well. I was also trying to stop the baby from being sent to nursery school or being looked after by an 18-year-old Latvia asylum-seeker au pair and become socially deformed from sensory deprivation. Also, I thought “What is the point of having a child if you’re going to let a complete stranger spend all day with it?” That, my friend, was very un-English at the time. Probably still is, to a degree. “Seen and not heard” and all that.
[To those without children: I now believe that people without children are just as happy, and live just as long, as people with children. And they have more money.]
During the day I would go into almost every shop on Lordship Lane with the baby and annoy the shop owners and workers. The Dulwich Ironmongers (the Hardware Store), Karavan – the imported stuff from India, the antique guns and war memorabilia shop, the florist, and the shoe shop. Our daily journey would make a great book. “My Son Meets the Neighbors”. People were friendly to me and the baby while inside their shops but not effusive. I got used to it. I would often foist the baby on them to hold, which, I believe pleased them. Many had never held a baby before. I hadn’t and I was middle aged.
People in the western world grow up without babies. Families are so small that 90% of children are either an only child, a first child, or the youngest child. But that is another post.
In the street, my shop friends wouldn’t make eye contact with me. I found this weird. The shopworkers and shopkeepers would walk right past me – as if they didn’t see me. When I stopped them to say hello they always acted incredibly surprised and pleased, as if they hadn’t noticed me, which of course was impossible.
The English just don’t feel comfortable connecting with people they know in unfamiliar territory. They don’t feel comfortable connecting with people they don’t know, either. None of this screaming across busy the street. It is like everyone has their place and what the hell are you doing in Peckham Park when I know you from Lordship Lane!
I now find it hard to believe that even the Beatles had English girls chasing them down the streets of England. The girls would have walked right past them and then when no one noticed, would have giggled.
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