Apparently some of us don’t like sitting next to people who smell. So once said Steve Norris, a former transport minister, when explaining why some people don’t use public transport. Now National Express are planning to do something about it. For a 25% supplement, passengers can purchase a bus ticket that will guarantee an empty seat next to them.
We all need space. We feel uncomfortable if someone we don’t know comes too near us. We enjoy opportunities to spread ourselves without having to think about other people’s needs. We like to be able to have our personal things around us in whatever state of tidiness we choose. A spare seat beside us in the bus does give us a chance to spread a little.
The reason Steve Norris gives why some people keep other people at arms length is a different matter. It’s probably not just those who smell that we would choose to keep clear of. There may be other types of people we’d rather not sit next to in the bus. Such decisions are likely to be based on a visual impression which could be very misleading. We may be missing something if we never make contact with those whose appearance or assumed way of life initially repel us.
Not everyone wants to use bus journeys to expand their awareness of the rich variety of human beings and lifestyles. But if we permanently protect our personal space from contact with that of others with different views and backgrounds, our lives will be impoverished.
Ballroom dancers in Todmorden, Yorkshire, are complaining. They say they can no longer whisk their feet elegantly around the floor of the local town hall, where the weekly classes are held. Council officials have coated the floor of their dance hall in a semi-adhesive goo for safety reasons. "It used to be superb," said Margery King, who has been attending for 19 years, "But now it is like a route march. The floor sticks to your shoes, which means you have to pick your feet up instead of gliding as you should."
"The hall is used for a variety of activities," a council spokesman said. "So, as a matter of public safety, a decision has been made to clean the floor with materials that make it less shiny."
We would all like to glide through life but sometimes the conduct of others makes it feel more like a route march. Sometimes wilfully, but more often without meaning any harm, other people’s actions seem to make our lives harder. This is even more frustrating when we are unable to understand the purpose behind their aggravating behaviour.
We are not alone in experiencing this. Even Jesus
exchanged sharp words with Peter on an occasion when the disciple’s inability to understand why Jesus had to face suffering in Jerusalem was making Jesus’ task more difficult. It is something we will have to live with today and on most days. Perhaps all we can do is to try and ensure that other people’s lives are not unnecessarily made harder by anything we do.
Let’s hope that today we see the release of Mordechai Vanunu. His eighteen years of imprisonment for revealing secrets about Israeli nuclear weapons included eleven and a half during which he was unable to receive any visits and only had contact with his jailers. It’s difficult to imagine the effect such solitary confinement will have had on him. Robin Plummer, a hostage in Libya for nine months in 1984, said recently that there was nothing in life that could prepare anyone for complete isolation and the brain had immediately to set up defences against going mad.
Jean-Paul Sartre’s play Huis Clos includes the phrase: “Hell is other people”. Dealing with the irritating behaviour of others, their lack of cooperation with our wishes or their lack of respect for our space, or simply the fact we dislike them, can sometimes make us feel we agree with Sartre's character. But for many of us it would be much more hellish not to have other people around.
Today, thinking of Vanunu emerging from his isolation might lead us to be glad we have people around us, even those who are not so easy to get along with.
Frederic Bonn was walking along a Paris street in 1998 when he nearly stepped on a few discarded family photographs. As he looked at them, he found that he was fascinated by the images. Who are they? What’s the relationship? How are they feeling about being photographed? Who is taking the picture? Since then he has been collecting casual photos from flea markets and off the street and has put them together in an exhibition “Look at me” which can be viewed online.
A fascination with people and the stories that lie behind what they are doing and how they look doesn’t need photographs to nourish it. Whenever we’re in a public place, we are encountering people, each of whom has their own unique history, their own distinctive problems and joys in life,
their own particular relationship with whoever they are with. Only the very tip of the iceberg is revealed in what we see and part of the attraction of people-watching is the mystery of what we don’t know and will never discover.
Let us today delight in the uniqueness of each person we encounter, however superficially. Let’s relish the variety of the people we see as we walk along the street and, in ignorance but with respect, treasure their particular story.