According to an Ipsos-MORI poll, a large majority of people (79%) think that there is more swearing on television now than ten years ago. And here’s another poll-generated statistic: only 55% of people trust civil servants to tell the truth. I generally skim over such statistics, for, when I read claims about the pulse of the nation, I always wonder: “Who are these faceless pollsters? Who have they asked, and why is it never me?” Well, now it is me. I have been part of a vital, evidence-gathering, information-generating research study into how and why we choose certain holiday destinations over others. Ha! What a laudable contribution to making the world a better place. Five men, five women, locked (ok, the door was closed) in a room for 90 minutes with a plate of sandwiches and a side a mince pies, guided through the crucial issues of culture, food, climate, accessibility, safety and whether or not Puerto Rico has the finest sandy beaches in the world. I know, it’s hardly an earth-shattering contribution, but curiosity got the better of me. I’ll admit, it did feel a little empty, a rather vacuous subject to throw oneself into when the woes of the world are still to be solved. Others felt the same, I’m sure, and as if to salve their conscience for spending time naval gazing at how we can most pleasurably fritter away our time drinking daiquiris under palm trees, up came the issue of socially responsible travel. “I went to Kos this year and realised my resort was five miles from a migrant refugee camp. I felt so uncomfortable knowing the circumstances of people so close by, while I enjoyed the comforts of a beach holiday…” His words petered out, they had nowhere to go, the subject matter too big. Everyone around the table felt complicit in his shame. For none of us have to go to Kos to live cheek by jowl with poverty, homelessness, crisis. Just take a walk in any town or city and see how often you avert your eyes from squalor and destitution. It’s too much. So we jump on a plane as often as we can to escape, and it follows us. What else is there to do? Volunteer? Make a regular charity subscription? Give money to every person you see huddled on folds of cardboard to stop the cold concrete leeching into their core? Shrug your shoulders and give up? Take to the streets in civil disobedience?
S. came to visit me this weekend by train and she told me this story. She arrived to the station early and passed a young woman wrapped in a blanket by the taxi rank with a dog peeping out from under her layers. In front of her, the ubiquitous battered Costa coffee cup containing a sprinkle of copper coins and a few pounds. S. realising she was early for her train, doubled back, and asked the girl if she would like a hot drink. “Yes please.” S. was waiting in the queue to order before it struck her that she had not bothered to ask what hot drink she wanted. She was horrified at herself and went back to ask what she would have asked anyone else. “Coffee, white, two sugars. Thanks for asking.” S. is the least judgmental person I know, but she came down hard in self-judgement for assuming she knew best, and that any hot drink would do; at forgetting to offer choice, rather than charity. As George Orwell said in Down and Out in Paris and London, “It is curious how people take it for granted that they have a right to preach at you and pray over you as soon as your income falls below a certain level.”
Ten years ago I was floating in a flurry of transatlantic correspondence from a recently encountered (soon to be my husband) Canadian. It was from those shores, in December 2008 that he wrote to me; bringing me back down to earth and bursting my little love-filled bubble with a word Polaroid describing the view from his office. He was watching a homeless man patrolling the car park in sub-zero temperatures. “Plaid wool coat. Obsessed with picking up things that may, or may not, actually be littered on the ground. He has one purple mitt, and one green glove (shredded and grimy). Face: red and raw from the winter cold. Snot-smeared mouth scabbed with sores. Bending over, bending over, bending over, to pick up something. To pick up nothing. To pick up garbage. We are not supposed to watch. We are supposed to avert our eyes from such displays of displaced, disassociated, humanity, lest we be/come implicated. Lest empathy spark, momentarily. And in that drifting spark (fire fly, phosphorous flare, passing headlight) we might see ourselves. But I know it already: that that street person is me. I know exactly what he is doing. And why he is doing it. The line between him and me is not that thick.”
He’s right, the line between us is never that thick; that much, I don’t need an Ipsos-MORI poll to tell me.