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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9 thoughts on “What do you have to do to get noticed in England? Please look at my baby!

  1. People are horribly reserved here in the city. i grew up in a Welsh village where you couldn’t go anywhere without meeting someone you knew or saying hello or passing the time. As a new parent I had to allow an extra hour for my errands just so people could pass the time. As a tourist town we sort of expected to be treated as friendly exhibits and upon a familiar face stopping me to admire my gorgeous baby, total strangers, maps in hand, would stop and coo too, because it was allowed. Here in the city though, it’s a very different kettle of fish. I have lived on the same street for 4 years, caught the same buses 5 days a week for 4 years and have only broke through the barrier a handful of times. I finally got fed up two years in and said to the bus stop full of people i’d seen about 500 times, ‘good morning, awful weather today!’ half of them moved away in case I had a knife, the other half said hello, relieved that someone had finally broken the silence. I make my way into my community little by little but the English really don’t make it so easy.

  2. Deb – thanks for your comment. I was thinking what I wrote was a load of crock. Shouldn’t people be less reserved in a big city, like London? That sounds weird to me.

    1. As funny as you try (and sometimes succeed at being), I feel compelled to correct a slight untruth in this latest posting. (I’ll leave the others alone for now . . . except to say we delivered the “hoarder” house to its new owners empty, so that story about their finding the poster is just that — a story.)

      You DID hold an infant before you became a father. And she’s 20 now, a junior at Skidmore, studying (you should appreciate this) American Studies and Government.

      And I’ve got plenty of pictures to prove it.

      By the way, your niece has recovered very nicely.

  3. Fantastic post, Lewis. You are a great Nunhead ornament. I have no idea why or how you are here, but long may you remain. I too am a middle-aged, buggy-wielding patroller of Lordship Lane. However, as an English person, I find the place and its shopkeepers exceptionally friendly. Believe me, if you think it’s unfriendly here, you should try other parts of our septic isle.

    1. I hope I didn’t give the impression I thought people in Nunhead and East Dulwich were unfriendly, just that they don’t feel comfortable making contact with someone outside where they are used to seeing that person. But when I did connect, they are very friendly

      Thank you for you comment! Please keep commenting!

  4. I think that a lot of this depends on where you live. East Dulwich and its wannabe satellite neighborhoods aren’t typical (I spent 13 years there). In the less ‘desirable’ suburbs further out you can’t walk down the high street with a baby or toddler without being stopped by almost every female from 8 upwards who passes by, and a good number of older men – grandad age – as well. Not only will baby / toddler be cooed after, but you’ll probably hear all about their children, grandchildren or siblings depending on the age of the person. Their phone will get pulled out and you’ll be treated to pictures of every child in the extended family. I reckon that you might prefer the SE22 stiff upper lip. The working classes and lower middle classes have their children (and therefore grandchildren) younger, and – round our way at least – large extended family networks are the norm (even if the actual relationships get a bit complicated in that modern reconstituted family way). Babies are a big event, and appreciated.

    By the way – walking an English Bull Terrier puppy elicits the same sort of response from young men as a baby does from women. They’ll even ask to take a photo to show their girlfriend even though she’d probably much rather see a picture of your baby.

    1. interesting stuff, Annie. I can never know what is local culture or national culture. There were alot of working class people in East Dulwich when I was carrying the babies around, so I am not sure it was just and East Dulwich attitude. But possible! Thank you for reading my post!!!

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