Harry Eyres was in sublime in form his Slow Lane column in last weekend’s Financial Times. The evocation of Home Counties rural England at the turn of the year captured the timelessness he sought. One line jarred though, a moment that was special also seemed deeply sad.
I tramped through the boggy clearing where a single lowish oak tree stands. Reaching the road on the far side; I heard a man’s voice, ‘I took part in the twenty-fifth anniversary of King George V’s coronation, that was in 1935’ and caught the flash of a friendly smile. Perhaps we have lived in the same village for decades and never exchanged a greeting.
Perhaps we have lived in the same village for decades and never exchanged a greeting? In primary school days I was given a dressing down at school on one occasion for not speaking to people that I passed on the road – I must have been all of ten years old. Even now, close on four decades later, people in my Somerset home village will at least nod if they pass you. It would be hard to imagine having lived for decades in a village and never having exchanged a greeting. In rural France, where we rented a farmhouse for a number of holidays, every driver we passed on the little roads waved at us as they waved at each other.
In south Co. Dublin, it would be easily imaginable. Moving from the North nine years ago, where everyone spoke, it was a culture shock to walk to the local shopping centre and to nod at people on the way and for them to simply pretend you weren’t there at all – eyes pointedly fixed forwards as they listened to their personal stereo or focused on their power walking. It is a local phenomenon, in other parts of Dublin there would be a stream of greetings – walking through a poor area of the north inner city in a clerical collar one Saturday morning, every person I passed said , “Morning, Father”.
Perhaps people walking down my road have such full lives that they haven’t time to greet strangers; perhaps they don’t like strange men; perhaps they don’t like clergy; perhaps they don’t like Protestants; perhaps there are lots of reasons why they must pass by without a hint of recognition that there is another human being nearby. There certainly would not be any prospect of the flash of a friendly smile that Harry Eyres met in his village.
The Irish Government is spending millions on its Taskforce on Active Citizenship and its hopes of reactivating community life. If people will not even say “Good Morning” to someone they pass along the road, the prospects of community are very slim.