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?