Say It Now

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Photo: Leeds Town Hall by Andrew Roberts

I was in Leeds last week doing research for a book and in amongst all the industrial history that I discovered, I also came across an outstanding café. Mrs Atha’s is tucked away down a side street in the city centre and not only was it a sublime place in which to linger, but it got me thinking about human interaction. I went for a late breakfast and as I queued to place my order, I took in the surroundings. With bare brick walls, wooden floors, and the now ubiquitous vintage china, it looked pleasant enough. But when I got to the front of the queue and started talking to the two neatly bearded young men in smart black aprons, I was reminded that businesses have a choice. They can do things—or they can do things with care. This was the latter. “Do you have soya milk?” I asked, explaining about my lactose intolerance and migraines. “No,” said the young man. “We use oat milk because it sits in the coffee better.” Without thinking, I wrinkled my nose rather rudely. “I’ll make you a cappuccino,” he said. “I don’t like warm milk,” I said. “Try it and if you don’t like it, I’ll make you something else,” he replied persuasively.

Unconvinced, I sat at a table and waited. Opposite, a man in a three-piece suit with bracelets and a flat cap, tucked into his breakfast and then beamed when a piece of cake was put in front of him. He tucked into that, too, and looked very happy. My scrambled egg arrived on a pretty plate, with baby button mushrooms and two oval slices of buttered, granary toast. I must have looked happy, too. It was perfection. When the young waiter passed my table, I said, “That was made by someone who really knows how to cook scrambled egg.” He looked pleased at the compliment and then I ordered another cappuccino.

cappuccino

This interaction reminded me of a treat that I had, five years ago, with my younger daughter, Molly. We went to Greenwich Market and spent some time browsing the immense range of street food including sushi, Korean, Ethiopian, goat curry, and paella. Eventually, Molly chose chorizo and potato stew with couscous and I settled for chicken piri piri with rice. We took our cardboard plates and perched on some steps at the edge of the lively market. Like my Leeds breakfast, the food was outstanding and it was satisfying to go back and tell the stallholder how much we’d enjoyed it. This human connection is so often lost in modern life, and it’s why I avoid restaurant chains when I’m on research visits.

For a similar reason, I tend to choose Airbnb for holidays and research trips. I like staying in private homes as each is different and you get the human dimension. You also get quirky welcoming touches, the benefit of local knowledge and an insight into other people’s lives. I’m used to leaving extensive reviews for everything I buy online but finding oneself as the subject of a review is a bit uncomfortable. Airbnb hosts review their guests in just the same way that the guests review their hosts. I’m pleased to say that all my reviews so far have been quite positive. Polite, quiet and easy-going have cropped up, and I’m especially proud to report that several have said, “Lynn is very clean.” I suppose that’s a compliment.

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Compliments are small gifts that are easy to give. They cheer people up and boost self-confidence. My mother was particularly good at this. I remember being surprised as a child when I’d hear her say, “That dress looks so pretty on you,” or something similar—often to people she hardly knew. It’s not very British to give compliments but I was aware even at a young age, that my mother was completely genuine. That’s the important thing—compliments should be sincere and given for the benefit of the recipient. Artful, insincere attention is merely flattery and is more about the needs of the giver.

I’ve been thinking about compliments all week and then with wonderful synchrony yesterday morning, I heard an item on Radio 4’s Saturday Live that crystallised my thoughts. A Scottish teacher was interviewed about her idea for living eulogies. She uses them in her school. We must all have heard glowing funeral eulogies and wondered with regret whether the deceased person ever knew that they were valued so much—or which of their qualities touched other people. This teacher was arguing in favour of telling people these things while they’re still alive to enjoy them. It’s important to be authentic and also not to be intrusive or inappropriate, but overall I like this idea and am going to adopt it.

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I’ve enthused wholeheartedly here about the joys of human interaction but there are, of course, times when anonymity is welcome and I came across a few of those during my recent trip. One afternoon I was in a museum, with very limited time, and as I stood scribbling down stories of Yorkshire’s Victorian mills, I became aware of an attendant watching me. ‘Is tha planning a school visit?’ he asked. ‘No,’ I replied politely. He thought for a few moments. ‘Is tha from a local history club?’ ‘No’ I said, thinking of my time constraints. There was a pause. “Well what is tha doin’ then?” I told him the bare bones, somewhat reluctantly and then spent the next twenty minutes trying to dodge his well-intended, but off-topic, nuggets of local knowledge.

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That evening I went back to my Airbnb and climbed the stairs to my room at the top of the house. I opened the door on the right and thought, “Why is there a half-naked young man on my bed?” Then I remembered that my door was on the left. I also remembered that my sense of direction is distressingly unreliable. I apologised profusely and went downstairs where I made a cup of tea and a hot water bottle, and had a pleasant chat with my hostess. I told her about the things I’d seen, and how much I was enjoying getting to know Leeds. She told me about Macedonia where she grew up. Then it was back up the stairs again and I opened the door to my room. Unfortunately the half-naked young man was still there—exactly where I’d left him. It’s lucky that Airbnb doesn’t invite guests to review their fellow guests. On this occasion, I would have received few compliments.

There’s A Lot To Talk About

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Dublin has been on my list for a long time and last weekend I finally got there. It was a treat timed to coincide with my birthday and one of the benefits of living only ten minutes from an airport, is that we were in the city centre in time for breakfast. Unlike many of the things I’ve longed to do, I had no preconceptions. I was simply curious about this nearby capital city.

We started with a guided tour and walking through an archway into the huge, elegant courtyard of Trinity College was a stunning moment. From there our guide swept us through the key events in Dublin’s history. I knew so little about Ireland that the details were new to me but it was no surprise that Catholic oppression, famine and British domination cropped up a lot. They were not happy stories and eventually we got to the Easter Rising of 1916 when Irish Republicans decided they’d had enough and laid siege to Dublin in order to try and free themselves from British rule. Our guide was erudite and enthusiastic. The tour should have lasted two hours, but we got nearly four. Half-way we stopped for coffee at the Irish Film Institute, a cosy respite from the torrential rain. We squashed around a table—an Irishman, an American, a German, a South African and me—and we talked about the state of the world. There’s a lot going on at the moment.

The next morning we went to Kilmainham Gaol where we sat in a sombre small chapel and heard about Joseph Plunkett, one of the leaders of the Easter Rising. stonebreakers-yardHis last wish was to marry his sweetheart, Grace and this was granted. They had ten minutes together, and then two hours later Joseph was executed by firing squad. Our tour ended in the stark Stone Breaker’s Yard where he and thirteen of his fellow rebels were shot. After execution the bodies were taken to a mass grave and covered with quicklime. James Connolly was one of these. He had been badly injured in the Rising and wasn’t expected to live long but nonetheless, he was brought from hospital to the prison, strapped to a chair and shot. The guide told us many similarly cruel stories. I also learned that initially, the Rising was unpopular in Dublin but that the harsh reaction of the British Army shifted public opinion. People were outraged and changed from being merely hostile to the British presence to supporting militant action against it. What followed were bloody years of conflict with a War of Independence and a Civil War.

On Saturday evening we joined a literary pub crawl. As I sat waiting for it to start I felt a tap on my shoulder. ‘Hello,’ said a young man. ‘Where are you from?’ He was up from Kildare for the evening and told me about the difficulties of getting work in rural Ireland. Then two actors led us through narrow streets whilst introducing us to the lighter side of Dublin’s most famous literary offspring: Wilde, Beckett, Yeats, Behan and Joyce. At the end, in the fifth pub we stayed on until midnight, deep in conversation with a friendly Dublin couple. We debated the current state of the world. There’s a lot to talk about.

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On Sunday morning in the Hugh Lane Gallery I went into a long room of Irish portraits. Over the past few days I’d heard about a number of people whose names appeared here—either them or their relatives. Recognising them gave me a small, satisfying sense that I was beginning to understand something of which I had been so ignorant.

Just before we left for the airport, Niamh our charming Airbnb hostess made a pot of tea and we told her about the Lucien Freud exhibition we’d seen, the great meal we’d had in a converted church, and the interesting people we’d met. I told her how glad I was to have learned something about Irish history. She talked enthusiastically about one of her heroines—Countess Constance Markievicz who was found guilty of treason in the Rising but wasn’t executed because she was a woman. On one occasion she went straight to a meeting after going to the opera and was photographed for a ‘Wanted’ poster wearing a ballgown, tiara and pearls. She’d advised her fellow women on how to prepare for rebellion—‘Dress suitably in short skirts and strong boots, leave your jewels in the bank, and buy a revolver’.  In 1918 she became the first woman to be elected as a British MP but in accordance with Sinn Fein policy, she didn’t take her seat. During the course of her life she gave away all of her wealth and died in penury at 59.

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Then the conversation moved onto current world politics. Niamh had been to Maine just before the American election and spoke of her shock at staying in a small town where the signs of recession were impossible to ignore. The town had recently lost most of its timber industry to Canadian competition and only one shop in four was open. She made it clear that she wouldn’t have voted for Trump, but she did remark that after this visit she could see why the people there would want protectionist policies. ‘We need to understand both sides,’ she said. Hearing that in Ireland, was affecting—the Irish know about hard times. They’ve been on the receiving end of a lot of harsh treatment.

Despite my focus here on the sober side of things, it was a really happy weekend. Great company, good food, and lots to see. But there’s no getting away from the history when you visit Dublin. And this weekend there was no getting away from current politics, either. Trump has started his presidency with a harsh approach. The issues are quite different from those in Irish history but human response is predictable. When people feel oppressed they get angry. That usually doesn’t end well. I worry about many things these days and now there’s a new one to add to the stash. Has the new president ever studied history?

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