Wednesday, 2 April 2014

The Profound Nature of Attention

1969, Lees Hill Playgroup, Kingswood, Bristol. A group of about twenty children are sat around in small chairs in a circle as an authoritative lady of indeterminate age sits on a bigger chair as part of the circle. We all sing, at her lead:
"Ten currant buns in a baker's shop
Big and round with a cherry on top"

I could almost taste the cherry. My mind's fingers were sticky with sugar and crumbs.

"Along came.."

Please let it be me!

"Jenny with a penny one day"

Deep disappointment. It wasn't me.

"Bought a currant bun and took it away"

Gradually, each of the ten buns was purchased by one of our number until none were left. I remained bun-less. Despite the imaginary nature of the buns, I was hungry and I also felt something else: "overlooked", "unnoticed", less interesting and important as those who had popped along to this hypothetical baker's shop, handed over their abstract pennies and smugly left with a fanciful confectionery in their worthy little hands.
Why wasn't it me?

My great-grandfather ran an "informal" betting ring for th' Osses! We lived with him in a single room in his council house during the grim austere greyness of the late 1960s, myself, my teenage parents and latterly, my baby sister. It was grubby, shabby and the flagstones in the hall and kitchen were cold on my feet in the mornings. A stream of old gentlemen in long grey raincoats would trickle in and out all morning, handing over piles of ten-bob coins wrapped in white pieces of paper, upon which the names of the horses were written. I don't really know what happened then. It was all very confusing to a small child of three or four. I remember they smelled funny: Of rolling tobacco and woodsmoke from their open fires.
Each one would raise a kindly hand to my little curly blond head and pat me affectionately as I sat observing the parade of gargoyles who came and went. And often they would give me sweets ( to the extent my milk teeth went rotten and had to be taken out). My great grandfather would stroke my head and in a wheezy voice forged in the smoke of a million Woodbines, gurgle proudly "Yes! He's my little buuy!" (He had a very strange dialect seldom heard today even in the more remote areas around Oldland Common.) And he would chortle in glee, wrinkle a smile at me and I would feel the proudest boy on Earth.

A large hall, dimly lit by flashing coloured lights, full of music of a tolerable volume and people dancing, somewhere in the West of England, 2014. The atmosphere is heady with the scent of enjoyment and occasional excitement. The edges of the hall are lined with people sitting, mostly ladies, arms folded in defence of their self-esteem. Each seems hopeful, expectant, but a little disappointed. A man walks over to one of the ladies.
"Would you like to dance?"
She accepts and suddenly her demeanour goes from bored resignation to radiant happiness. The dance unfolds until its end, with perhaps a little banter, flirting, or perhaps little interaction beyond that of lead and follower. The lady, happy for a moment, acknowledges her partner and his gallantry (or chooses to ignore his enthusiastic contortions), a smile is exchanged and she goes to sit down again, perhaps not to dance for the rest of the evening.

So, what it is it about attention that feeds us so? Why do we need the regard of others (and few can say truthfully they do not) to blossom of feel whole? Someone we know vaguely, remembers our name when we pass them in a shop, thinking previously that they were unaware of even our existence. Our day is made. A lady smiles at me as I hold the door open for her. I am lifted and I feel I am more than I was moments before.
Conversely, we fear that strangers may regard us in a lesser way because we have ventured out without make-up, dressed drably on a night out, gone to the DIY shop in our decorating clothes and bumped into that lovely teacher our kids had five years ago.  The regard of others is so important to us. No regard is a famine for the soul.
And it doesn't have to be positive regard: It is well known that children will play up to inattentive parents because censure is at least attention. Adults do this too, but in more sophisticated ways (in most cases) than climbing on the furniture or writing on the walls.

It seems to me that a lot of people are quite unhappy because they feel the world overlooks them. In fact, perhaps it does. It could be that many people go through life without a compliment, smile or friendly act directed their way for most of the time. And surely this cannot make for a happy world.

Ok, there are huge injustices, agonies of tragedy in places where law and order do not exist. We are by and large (at least those of us here, looking at blogs from the comfort of whatever safe environment we find ourselves in, I hope) not in such situations.

But wouldn't it be a nice place if we just decided to be a bit kinder to each other? As long as the appreciative comment about a dress is not taken inaccurately as a sign of romantic intent, or a comment about someone's healthy glow is not regarded as irony (the right kinds of smile should prevent such misunderstandings), taking the time to connect with people can only make us all feel a little bit more appreciated.
So, I am off up the High Street now to smile at some people and spread a little sunshine on a day when meteorologically, the isn't much of the other kind.

Here: Have a bun!


Jane and Lance Hattatt said...


We cannot agree more about the need for more kindness in the world. As you say, surely everywhere would be happier if smiles rather than frowns or complete indifference were exchanged.

Only connect.....EMForster wrote and how true this is, we feel. In our experience, friendships are treated very casually rather than nurtured with the result that one withdraws inwardly and soon friendships can wither on the vine rather than blossom.

Your sticky buns look delicious, so we shall, with a smile, take one (or two) and may your day be bright and sunny whatever the weather.

PerlNumquist said...

Thank you Jane and Lance. Those chelsea buns were made by my own fair hands (the secret is plenty of butter, don't skimp on the dried fruit and NO candied peel). I am aware I have been remiss in friendships and this perhaps is my resolution to my self to be more diligent. I didn't know of the E M Forster reference but I shall look into it. Thank you :-)