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Humanity

If you sit long enough contemplating the rain streaming down the windows whilst listening to the noise of a thousand drops a second hammering on the deck above, with the howl of the wind in the rigging and the movement of the boat as the gusts jerk us to the end of our mooring lines and we bob about in what little turbulence makes its way into the marina, the mind begins to wander over the events of the six months that we have spent travelling with no home but the boat that floats around us.
Throughout my working life, and indeed even before this, I have always lived close to or within a city or other substantial conurbation, this being largely for the convenience of either my own employment or that of my parents. Finally, for the three years immediately prior to retirement I was living and working in central London and the people I worked with, had everyday contact with, people I met in the street, were all a product of that same urban environment. I recognise that my experience of life has been tainted by this but what I had not realised before was just how different my behaviour might have been.

Walk down a street in London, as in many other cities, and you will pass many people without your presence being acknowledged. This behaviour is expected and is mutual – I would do the same. People in the street are passing shapes that require subtle evaluation for threat but which are then ignored, eye contact avoided if at all possible. Enter a shop and likely as not you will also be ignored until you have chosen your purchase and the need to make a payment arises. All such behaviour is so taken for granted that we think nothing of it in that setting. But move outside that environment and human behaviour is vastly different.

I might leave our boat now and wander along the pontoon to take the ferry across the bay to Oban. To each person I pass I will express a greeting, ‘Good morning’ or ‘Good evening’ as appropriate and the responses are quite likely to draw me into a conversation which could develop into a deep friendship or may just pleasantly pass the time. The ferryman may well recognise me by now and a cheery greeting is expected but I would also expect any passenger near me to engage me in conversation, or me him, just as if we were resuming a conversation from the day before, but when in fact this might be a complete stranger.
Ah, I hear you say, but the marina ferry serves a closed community of boaty people (or ‘yotties’ as we might like to be known) who will recognise you as someone with similar interests and experiences and quite naturally engage you in conversation. In this you would be right – conversation is easy in this setting – but in so many of the places we have visited, generally small ports, towns and villages, this same behaviour appears in the wider community too. Enter a shop or a pub in Northumberland or in a Scottish village and it would be considered rude not to greet the owner and any other customers who happened to be in there with a cheery ‘Good morning’. In any quiet village street it is simply good manners to say hello to people you pass, irrespective of whether or not you know them. Strangely, for me, in the space of only a few short months I too have acquired such habits and now find them second nature notwithstanding the fact that this is behaviour I would never have even thought of before. Indeed it occurs to me to wonder what the reaction might be were I to try this in some parts of the London; probably not very advisable, I’d say.
In many ways it is sad to think that we have come to this. Urbanisation and the behaviours associated with living in such environments are certainly not the norm and indeed they may well be a relatively recent phenomenon. Somewhere and somehow city dwellers have come to lose the habits of exchanging pleasantries with neighbours, the desire to stop and chat with people simply because they are human and you are too. I have now made time for this behaviour that I didn’t have before, time for all the little gestures of welcome and warmth that make our lives here in the Western Isles so different from our lives in London. It is a feeling of warmth and trust that I had neither expected nor, were I to be honest, would I have thought myself capable of emerging so far from my own urban cocoon of distrust in so short a period. I might have expected, when leaving my urban landscape behind me, to be treated like an alien in a foreign land but instead I am surprised to find myself like a butterfly spreading my wings into a new world of niceness, a world where there are different rules and few barriers to conversation with strangers. Every day I see this attitude reflected all around me and I marvel at how I could have lived without the experience for so long.
Curiously, alongside my own thoughts on this subject I found myself reading other views that mirrored my own. Back in 1937 Neil Gunn took to a small boat with his wife for a voyage around the Western Isles and wrote about his experience in “Off in a Boat” which was first published the following year. It still makes a good read. He writes “The more I see of life the more I am convinced that there is a primordial goodness in man, a natural generosity.” After describing how acquisitiveness and greed can crush such behaviour he then goes on to describe a mechanism for re-kindling the same. “And of all elements for quickening the free primordial spirit of man, what can surpass the sea, with its thrill of life over the near presence of death.” And who can argue with that on a day like today.
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