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.
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.
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.
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.
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.