Monday, September 27, 2004

The whole hideous inverted childhood

Lengthy train journeys can be extraordinarily depressing.

I’m not talking about cramped seating, delays, changes which involve switching platforms in impossibly quick time. All irritating, yes, but not depressing.

Not depressing like those excruciatingly painful occasions when a fellow passenger, travelling alone and encouraged by an exchange of social pleasantries, spills out all the bloody guts of their life. It floods out and, whether willingly or unwillingly, you find yourself plunged in deep, unsure of what to say or do.

But why do we feel awkward in that situation? Is it an embarrassment we experience by proxy, an embarrassment they’re oblivious to, an embarrassment we’re lending them as well as a sympathetic ear? Or is that squirming utterly self-centred? Aren’t we at least in part thinking, “Why me? Why do I have to endure this?” The result is a sense of sadness tinged with self-disgust.

Today’s journey was worse than most, but in a different way.

I was sat next to an old woman and her daughter-in-law, returning home from a wedding in Dundee. The son was driving all their luggage back while they got the train – the logic being that the old woman would be able to travel in more comfort and have easy access to a toilet. Unused to rail travel – or indeed to long journeys of any sort – she was naturally concerned and nervous, particularly about the possible theft of her wheelchair which couldn’t be stowed in any of the luggage racks and which was thus out of view.

I had to sit there for the best part of two hours witnessing what amounted to psychological abuse. The daughter-in-law trivialised all her concerns, relentlessly patronised her, bossed her about like she was a stupid child, met every one of her reminiscences with careless indifference or, more often, maliciously barbed challenges calculated to undermine her and call into question her memory.

As if having to have a chaperone wasn’t undignified enough, the old woman had to endure being stripped of all her remaining dignity in this very public way.

And, worst of all, the daughter-in-law had the audacity to drop continual if subtle reminders of how “kind” and “thoughtful” she’d been in offering accompaniment.

It made me think of Larkin’s ‘The Old Fools’, of the tone of spiteful disgust at the elderly. As the poem unfolds, it becomes clear that this disgust arises at least partly from the terrified acknowledgement of the middle-aged poet that this is how we will all end up – something of which this horrid bitch seemed oblivious. When she reaches that age, may she be bullied and patronised to death.

Admittedly I’m an incorrigible earwigger, but it wasn’t as if that mattered – there it was, going on in my face, and within easy earshot of numerous passengers.

But no-one interrupted or said anything. And, though I answered a few inquiries in passing, neither did I.

Result: sadness and disgust.

Sometimes people appal me. Sometimes I appal me.

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