The kindness of strangers
30 January 2021 | or The Confessional
I affect an image of surly pessimistic grumpiness; an aura of sour bile, seasoned with simmering anger and disdain, garnished with a few sprigs of delicately fragranced prejudice and finished off with a soupçon of sneering sarcasm. I’ll let you into a little secret here; I’m actually quite a sanguine, optimistic, easy-going sort of bloke. My affected persona is a little private in-joke that I play on myself and the world in general. Those of you who have ever played a Victorian parlour game called ‘teapot’ will recognise the format.
For the joke to work properly, the audience should start off believing the affectation and gradually realise the true state of affairs. The next stage of the joke is not for members of the audience to be so crass as to call me out on it, but to become complicit in the charade and to try to out-curmudgeon me with an equally straight face. There is no winner, but the loser is the last one to cotton on. In the right circumstances, with the right co-conspirators, this can stretch things out for entire lifetimes until the whole pretence takes on an independent life of its own.
The rules of this game are relatively well understood instinctively in British, especially English, society.(1) All humans come with an irony chip installed as standard, but it needs to be activated by the environment and this precondition is satisfied in spades by British society, steeped as it is in irony, satire, understatement, false modesty and litotes. Try it on other cultures, though, and you might run into a slight problem or two. Or several. This seems especially true of Americans, despite (or perhaps because of) the absence of a significant language barrier. Bill Bryson observed in Notes from a Small Island that an American is unlikely to realise that, should an Englishman say something with a completely straight face, accompanied by the most imperceptible of pauses and perhaps a microscopic elevation of the right eyebrow, then he does not expect to be taken entirely seriously.
Thus it is with my cynical, sour-faced, misanthropic alter ego, whose splenetic accusatory verbal rampages, both oral and in print, are scurrilous, unsubstantiated inventions of such bare-faced mendacity that they could easily have tripped from the gorgeous pouting lips of our beloved, and much respected, current Prime Minister.
There will now be a short pause while I replenish my depleted stock of adjectives.
That’s better. Now, where was I? Oh yes, confessions of a serial sceptic. I was fleshing out some of the themes of the current project (2) when it struck me just how cussedly I have played fast and loose with the facts for comic effect. Well, that, and to support the whims, prejudices and presumptions of my assumed persona. Contrary to any logical interpretation of my books and blog posts, the sum of our interactions with other people throughout our extended cruising has been overwhelmingly positive. In fifteen years of full-time cruising we have experienced just one instance of being involved in a physical fracas and that was fairly ineffectual – a bit of pushing and shoving, followed by some not particularly successful (or dignified) attempts at intimidatory posturing and strutting. Supporting this star turn in the hostility olympics were no more than five or so verbal altercations of varying degrees of rudeness and aggression. That’s about one every three years. You’d match that whole fifteen-year quota in an hour and a quarter’s cycling through central London on a Friday afternoon.
Contrast this with the other side of the coin – unsolicited random acts of kindness, not just by friends or acquaintances, but by complete strangers, whose name is Legion (3) and who outnumber the rude, the aggressive and the mean spirited by several orders of magnitude. They are far too many to enumerate but let me give a flavour of their works.
First up to the oche is Edison from the port of Orikum in Albania. We left Orikum early in the morning and arrived in the commercial port of Durres after a tiring twelve-hour trip, only to discover that we had left all the ship’s papers behind in Orikum. In most countries we would have expected a yacht arriving without papers to be sent straight back again to get them, irrespective of the weather or approaching darkness(4). Not so here. Arben, the local agent, filled in the necessary forms using other bits of paper we had kicking about, and 'phoned Orikum, where he spoke to Edison, one of the marinheiros there.
Edison found the papers and drove a 120 mile round trip after he finished a full shift at work in order to deliver them to us. This would have been magnanimous enough on Western European roads. Albanian roads look like the aftermath of the battle of the Somme. It took him over three hours all told. Even so, we had to hassle him to accept any payment at all, even for the petrol.
Edison’s was a grand, selfless gesture. At the other end of the scale, but equally thoughtful and appreciated was the chap in Teulada, Sardinia. We had misread the bus timetable and were marooned in the baking heat for five hours until the next bus back to the marina. We had thought to while away the time in the cool of the town’s only bar-café, but that was shut.
We propped ourselves in what little shade we could find and checked on the bar at frequent intervals. It remained resolutely closed, and we became progressively more mummified. After a couple of hours had elapsed, the door opened in one of the houses opposite and a man in his sixties shuffled out. I recognised him as I had seen him through the top floor window. He smiled at us, and wordlessly placed a bottle of beer, two glasses and an opener on the low wall beside us. He indicated that we should leave the empties on the wall and shuffled silently back.
There were countless other random acts of kindness from being driven around Cavtat , Croatia, in search of a dentist to the free use of a 175 scooter for the whole of the winter in Marmaris. We took up hours of an Italian gentleman’s life, and made a significant hole in his phone budget, while he walked us step by step through recovering our debit card from the ATM that had summarily eaten it. We were treated as honoured guests by the overworked staff of Finike hospital and were offered lifts for us and our overloaded shopping trollies times without number. All in all, a simple count puts the lie to my Mr Hyde incarnation’s gloomy and cynical picture of humanity.
So, I stand accused of mendacity, misdirection, gross hyperbole, and cynical manipulation of the facts to further a personal agenda, alongside my co-defendants Messrs Johnson & Trump.
I plead guilty as charged, but offer the defence, or at least the mitigation, of artistic licence coupled with a desperately needy obsession with chasing clicks and book sales. And anyway, the giant lizards made me do it. They said that otherwise they’d carry on starting the California wildfires by firing lasers from space. Gawd, stone the crows! It’s a fair cop,
Mary Poppins Guv’ner. You got me bang to rights, but it ain’t gonna stop me.
Never let the facts get in the way of a good dose of bigotry, that’s my motto.
(1) It can be a bit of a problem if too dead-pan, though. It’s a fine line
(2) Book 3 nearing completion. Working title “Two Way Stretch”
(3) Yeah, yeah, I know. Legion in this quote (Mark 5:9) actually refers to a multipartite demon, who is unlikely to have instigated random acts of kindness, but if I can play fast and loose with real facts then I’m hardly likely to hold back on mangling some Bronze Age creation myth.
(4) Or the stray mines reputed to have been left over from Enver Hoxha’s regime.