Posted by tomhmackenzie
A strange thing happened to me the other day, but on reflection perhaps not so strange. I went to say hi to the chairman of my old tennis club as I was travelling close by his house. We were never close but for ten years we were both active participants and would talk between matches . That was twenty five years ago. About five years back he dropped into my shop, not to buy anything but to renew acquaintances, or so I thought. Now I believe it more out of curiosity than anything.
Expecting a civilised reception I was kept on his doorstep just long enough for him to make a factitious remark and for him to say that his wife, Joan, who was also a club member, was doing something on the computer. Here was one old man of long-time acquaintance, reaching out to another old man, only to be given the brush off. Why I say this bleak reception was not so strange is that it speaks perhaps of our inability to relate to each other as we should.
The old club chairman was always given to the patronising put-down, so I was not unduly perturbed that he remained the old unreformed Dave. But, just the same, it got me thinking about the level of incivility that our country so often exhibits in this the 21st century. Once upon a time, each of us knew the names of our close neighbours – surname as well as Christian. As for those mutual visits for ‘cuppas’, they went out of the window eons ago. We really did make an effort to be friends. Gossip used to be rife in those days, most of it harmless stuff but the fact is that it helped to grease the wheels. In truth, people were genuinely interested in their neighbours. It is hard to imagine that so many of these awful present day cases of child abuse as well as neglect would have passed unnoticed. Perhaps another reason we don’t get to know our neighbours is that we don’t bump into them on our walks to the shops. We simply exit our houses at high speed, leap into our car and race off at even higher speed. Rarely a wave do we trouble ourselves with.
So what is it that makes us so distant and seemingly uninterested in those about us? I suspect it has a lot to do with the independence which rising prosperity has given us. It is both a blessing and a curse. The fact is we don’t need each other as once we did, or at least we imagine we don’t. It is interesting to note that the poorer a society is, the closer people are with each other. It is as though adversity brings them together. People of a certain age will often tell you how great the camaraderie was in the years of war and how everybody was everybody else’s friend. Even social class distinctions came close to vanishing. All at that time stood in mortal peril – at least in the cities – and shortages of everything were acute. Even in the years following, when there were only the shortages to deal with, people still went to each other’s help where they could.
But gradually the consumer society took over. In the old days, acquisitiveness was virtually non-existent and ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ unheard of. Today, the green eyed monster looms over every neighbourhood and further divides people. My wife, who endured many more years of deprivation (under Communism) than we did in the West, tells me that one of the saving graces – and there were not many – of the old USSR was that right to the end people helped one another. They knew their problems and provided that most essential of palliatives: a shoulder to cry on.
If possessions and acquisitiveness is part of the problem – perhaps the major part – it is hard to see things getting better any time soon. It is a fact that the larger the city, the lonelier you can feel. In that case more is very much less. Perhaps we in Plymouth should take comfort from the fact that we are not too big and blessed with a great mix of attractions both natural and manmade. For my own part, I have never regretted picking Plymouth from 25 other cities in 1967 to set up my health club. All of the cities I shortlisted had populations over 200,000 and, at that time, had no health club. I felt certain that that sort of number would guarantee me a good living and so it proved. You should have seen some of those other grim industrial abodes that were on that list. I’m so glad I gave them a miss!
Finally, a grateful thanks to the kind and civic-minded person who, following my most recent column in The Plymouth Herald gave us back those lamented flowers in Ridgeway’s five tubs.