Giving something back

A strange week this one. It began in London. I had stayed as usual in my daughter's flat and was going down to a meeting in the City. It was a busy time, the pavements crowded with people, queues waiting for buses, people on the way to work and school. I had that slight claustrophobia I get now in cities when I come in from my slower, greener and emptier part of the country. For the first day or so the city feels too full, too frantic. I was pleased to be looking out at it from the protective privacy of a taxi.

The taxi stopped for traffic lights by a bus stop. There were three young teenagers waiting, a boy and two girls of about thirteen. The boy looked Chinese and was standing a little apart from the two girls, one black, one white, who were drinking Coca Cola and kicking at their school bags. The black girl walked up to the boy and began saying something. He shrugged and moved away a little. She followed him and backed him up against the wall, talking into his face. Her friend shouted something and they both laughed. The boy refused to meet her eyes, staring away silently up the road into the middle distance.

There was a tension to him that made me watch and wonder if he was ok. The black girl turned away and walked back laughing to the other girl. The taxi's engine idled, we moved forward a couple of feet, the lights changed and we waited again. I watched him, his face pale and closed. The white girl came across, pony tail swinging, her pretty, little face set and hard. She stood next to him and began, ever so slowly, ever so carefully, to pour her drink onto the pavement just by his feet. It splashed up onto his trousers and shoes and he shifted away. She moved with him, still pouring, her face jammed up into his, saying nothing. He was, I think, trying for impassivity but his face was a mask of mute misery. I wanted to jump out the taxi and slap her (yes, I know, I know). When the can was empty she dropped it in front of him and returned laughing to her friend. The lights changed and we drove away.

Why has this stayed with me all week? Something and nothing, no doubt repeated up and and down the country in one form or another. No one was physically hurt. It was not a knifing. And yet the casual, calculated unkindness has got under my skin. The delighted aggression of the girls, the silent misery of the boy is vivid behind my eyelids if I wake in the night and can't sleep. It is of a piece with the Jonathan Ross/Russell Brand episode: something designed to humiliate, a petty laughing cruelty. I have no idea whether others would think I am overreacting and I don't much care. To me there is a horror in the idea of a society which takes pleasure in the humiliation of others. Perhaps it was ever thus but I do not want a society in which kindness and a sense of what it is like to be in someone else's sticky coke-splashed shoes are signs of weakness, as strange and oldfashioned as doffing a hat.

And at the other extreme of my week we spent a couple of days in the company of two people who have given quite a lot of money to help to create an outdoor pursuits centre, not a grand one but a place which will introduce city children to the great green spaces of the Northern Lakes. It was quietly and unshowily done. They could help so they did, believing in the power of the outdoors to improve lives at any age. They were interested to see the progress of the place but they were not looking for thanks.

Is it just the years between thirteen and fifty three that make you interested in giving something back?

Comments

  1. It's a cultural change - casual cruelty seems to have become regarded as acceptable behaviour by some people. The more we see people humiliated in newspapers, magazines and reality TV then the more "normal" it appears to some people - just a joke they say. I can't understand the pleasure in watching people in pain but maybe I'm in the minority now.

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  2. That's horrible. Poor kid. This kind of thing helped push us into leaving the UK. We didn't want our kids spending their teenage years in that kind of environment. I know we can't protect them forever, but I wanted them to be able to enjoy their childhood a bit longer than I felt they'd be able to in a British city.

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  3. You are right eg that this sort of casual cruelty is supported by comedy and reality tv. I hope you find a gentler more extended childhood for your children amanda. My own children are in their 20s now but my daughter in particular would dislike this quite as much as I do.

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  4. Oh dear - what to say? I'd feel the same but hopefully the poor boy will get stronger as he gets older and more able to deal with that sort of thing. You described so vividly it will probably stay with me now.

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  5. I'm not surprised that it stayed with you. Bullying of that sort is just as bad as physical. It can cause suicide just as easily. And yes, it is incouraged by the stuff we see every day on the box. I cannot understand why people find bullying type jokes funny.

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  6. I do feel for you,I like you would have felt like slapping those girls..Its so difficult to understand isn't it, how some people gain such pleasure in hurting others. I remember a psychologist that I used to work with telling me how it is only humans, (and I think chimpanzees),that will kill and torture for pleasure. Animals generally kill for survival. I know these girls probably thought what they were doing was funny and didn't think of the conseqences;but why didn't don't people think? Sorry I'm going on

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  7. There is a calculated cruelty (mostly in girls) that I have observed even in small children.
    Boys have fights....... and can do all sorts of terrible things, but the iciness of a girl's cruelty leaves me with the creeps.
    People have been stabbed for interfering in incidents like these, and I'm not sure what I would do if I was walking by on such a scene.
    I know what you mean though. Things like that stay with you.

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  8. No, it's not just you, Elizabeth. I find that sort of petty, pointless cruelty horribly depressing. Don't know what to suggest. I think it's some kind of insidious malaise and, yes, I do think it's being sanctioned by reality TV and people like Brand and Ross.

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  9. A horrible situation.

    I was glad to read in the DT today that a headmistress has excluded 5% of the puplils in her school for bad behaviour - the result - higher percentage of exam passes.

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  10. An extraordinarily vivid and affecting bit of writing Elizabeth - I wish every columnist in our shabby press was as good as you. I share your sentiments and believe many others do too. I think what you saw has probably gone on between teenagers since the beginning of time; the difference is, I think, that in our society people are not being encouraged to grow up, and it is deemed amusing to behave like a teenager even when one is nominally an adult (I don't think the dreadful Ross can be much behind you in age). I don't believe our society will improve much unless we can somehow communicate to young people that responsible adult behaviour is a desirable mark of strength and something to be striven for, rather than an out-dated way of life for old people. In Manchester we see a great deal of this appalling behaviour, and living as we do amongst 18 and 19 year-old students, it is shockingly apparent that nobody has ever taught them how to share their space responsibly. I have just been out now to pick up the litter strewn around the street from their late-night takeaways. A household of teenagers is a scary thing to live next door to, but sadly I'd bet that those youngsters you saw will likely spend just as much time on their own without adult company, and thus will make their own rules based on what they see and hear in the media.

    And now it is time to stop, or people will think I am attempting a coup for a guest spot on your blog!

    Have a lovely day in your hills, and I will get on with some more preparation for the craft fair this weekend.

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  11. What an unpleasant vignette - I can understand why it has haunted you this week.

    I hope its just part of a part of a bigger picture and not indicative of the direction society is heading in.

    Sadly the lives of a lot of young people, particularly in our bigger cities, do seem bleak and unstructured. What a fantastic and practical gesture your sponsors of the outdoor pursuits centre have made. I hope it enriches the lives of all the youngsters who go there.

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  12. I entirely agree with you; such a sight would have got under my skin too. John Harris has it right - at some time in the last thirty years it became unfashionable to be kind and gentle. As Morrissey sang, "it takes guts to be gentle and kind

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  13. Sod fashion! It costs absolutely nothing to be kind to others. I think I'm more of the 'I blame the parents' school than heaping it all on the media. What you witnessed was utterly depressing and I only hope that that little girl looks aback in a few years time and regrets her unkindness.

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  14. I totally agree with you, there is absolutely no reason to bully others, for that is what that was. The trouble is nowadays the parents of kids like this always go to their defence and the authorities beit school or police have their hands tied when dealing with anything incase it affects their human rights..never mind the human rights of the poor kid who was being picked on! I bet a lot of people just walked passed and didn't say anything...

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  15. as you know, absorbing the bullying meted out to my F9, I am acutely aware of the pain caused by bullying. This us and them business. I used to stand up to bullies as a child (and as a result got saddled with some right old undesirables as a consequence!) but I burn to witness injustices and can picture that scene so well. It does not matter that he was not "hurt", it's that he had to cope with the humiliation. Makes me want to slap them too!

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  16. A haunting incident, hauntingly written Elizabeth. Thank you for telling us and stimulating such discussion. Imagine living with daily, low-level, unthinking cruelty and discrimination - it chips away at personality.
    x

    PS there's a friendship award for you over at mine.

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  17. A haunting incident, hauntingly written Elizabeth. Thank you for telling us and stimulating such discussion. Imagine living with daily, low-level, unthinking cruelty and discrimination - it chips away at personality.
    x

    PS there's a friendship award for you over at mine.

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  18. That would have got under my eyelids too! Deliberate humiliation/cruelty - and I don't know where the girls would have learnt that behaviour from. Children are cruel at times, especially when egged on by friends - hopefully, in quiet reflection on her own, she'll feel guilty; we can only hope. Mootia x

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  19. Girls are often the crueller race in my experience. It's their subtlety and lack of words that makes it so much worse.

    I just hope something happens (not necessarily horrible or tit for tat) that'll make them see where they're going wrong in time.

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  20. Well it is heartening to know that so many bloggers feel just as I do about this! Sometimes you wonder if you are wildly out of touch with the world and the answer seems to be no, not all the world.
    I might also need to blog about my other big bugbear - the terrifying focus on looks and hyper grooming which has extended to the normal population the standards previously expected of film (and porn) stars. I speak as a natural beauty, obviously.
    Don't encourage me.

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  21. What we think is acceptable behaviour has certainly changed in a generation, Elizabeth. In the world we grew up in, any adult could and would intervene when children were misbehaving, but now we are all afraid to do so. I wish the pendulum would swing back, so we all feel a sense of responsibility to each other. How can this happen?

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  22. I am so with you on seeing that bullying, uncaring, self-defeating behaviour. Indeed this week I witnessed something similar myself - involving grown up women rather than schoolgirls. They were fat and ugly and drank pints of beer and I could only think how unhappy they were beneath all their inebriated false bonhomie. Their misdemeanour was behaving in a grossly selfish manner at a performance - nothing in itself - but somehow it's the inability to have any consideration or empathy with other people (and in the matter of appearance even themselves) that seems to be the problem. Is this taught? Or is it something we are born with?

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  23. I think it is taught Fennie, both explicitly and by example. I remember my mother talking to me about a girl at school who was being teased because she was fat might feel, I remember having similar conversations with my own children. Young children are naturally selfish I think and are taught how to consider others as they grow, or not.

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  24. Young teenage girls can be particularly nasty. Having an almost 16 year old, we are out the other end, but it breaks my heart to hear what they say to each other sometimes. It's usually because they haven't "found themselves" yet, and like all bullying, it's insecurity. But there's no excuse for it.
    And (as you'll see in my next post) everyone who can, should give back. Most of us are so privileged, there's no excuse for not trying to help.
    Great post.

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  25. You wrote very movingly about what you saw and I will find that hard to push to the back of my mind - it is so symptomatic of youngsters who have been taught no self-discipline, experienced no compassion, been given no guidelines and can only boost their own lack of self-confidence by bullying others. What wonderful mothers those two girls are going to make - I don't think . . .

    No-one said it was ever easy bringing up children - it's the hardest job in the world, especially as it doesn't come with a handbook - and how sad that many single mothers don't even try.

    If it's any consolation, I would have been wanting to get out and slap that girl too.

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  26. I found your post very moving. It is hard to be on the outside looking in, unable to do anything. I hope the young lad has some supportive friends and family. Please remember that there are also many young people who would be just as horrified as us. They are not all bad.

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  27. I can understand why you were upset Elizabeth,it was a harrowing thing to witness.Teenagers can be so cruel.I believe that with all the computers games etc they are exposed to , they lose touch with what is reality and also their emotions.Not all are the same ,many are responsible , caring adults and hopefully there will be enough of them to outnumber those who are bullies.I think that we all long for a kinder gentler society .(LL)

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  28. I've only just caught up with this post. You described the scene so well you've made me able to see and feel the whole incident. And yes I can understand why it stayed with you - there is a Lord of the Flies cruelty about it.

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  29. No Elizabeth, you are not out of touch. It is one of the worst aspects of the society we seem to live in today, and which Fennie touched on too i.e TOTAL self-involvement. It is one of my biggest bug bears too. I am at the other extreme - I spend FAR too much time and energy doing everything I can to avoid hurting or humiliating people by thoughtless words or deeds. I am quite sure I do not always succeed as I have a big gob at times and am frequently 'misinterpreted'! So, we're none of us perfect, but we all have a duty to TRY to be kind and thoughtful to others. Every human should have a value and the behaviour of those girls was truly pathetic. If it had been me, I'd have rolled down my window and told them to stop treating that poor guy so appallingly (from the safety of the locked taxi door, of course, and an imminent green light!). I live by the 'imagine if someone did something like that to you' rule - and that's what I tell my children when they're misbehaving. So, in my view, it's a combination of parental failure and media irresponsibility - programmes where humiliation is the core joke (cf The Weakest Link, Jonathan Ross etc etc etc). Until we start educating our children better in the realms of social behaviour and social responsibility and start putting the emphasis back on community rather than the individual, I fear it is an ever downward spiral. (Gosh, that's a bleak outlook, isn't it?!)

    On a more positive note, hats off to your mates and the outdoor pursuits centre. I used to work in the schools travel/expedition field and I have total belief in the benefits it brings to children of all shapes, sizes and backgrounds. Again, it's about learning to be part of team and how much better we work when we all pull together, drawing on eachother's strengths and suppporting eachother's weaknesses. So what a perfect post you have written Elizabeth - the problem at the beginnning finds the answer at the end (in my view, anyway!).
    xx

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  30. I'm afraid we see examples of this everyday - add drugs and alcohol and its a recipe for diaster.

    The photo has changed - the thorns seemed rather apt

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  31. No, not overreacting Elizabeth. I would also find it hard to forget. I was bullied mercilessly myself throughout most of my childhood and that mute misery you talk of stays fresh in the memory. How I wish these people could understand or even care about the harm they do. You have to hope there is such a thing as karma to make the wrong have some sense. xx

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  32. Why does hate survive amongst our young. No one teaches hatred, do they? Where does the need to bully and humiliate come from? Is it from low self esteem? A sad post, but beautifully drawn.
    EM, I have pmd you a couple of times, but not sure if you have received them.

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  33. A wonderful posting, Elizabeth.
    such food for thought ..

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  34. My God! You could be me.Love everything about your writings. Actually, you make me want to write some for myself.

    Wishing you a very happy new year, with many blessings, good health, peace, love and happiness always, and very very many twinkles!

    Lots of love.

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