I like people but as the Doors so memorably sang in 1967, ‘people are strange.’
A while back, when I was the Principal of George Heriot’s School, some of us were answering questions put to us by the Sixth Year, and one of the questions was ‘Why does Mr Wyllie hate sport?’ I wasn’t offended, because I recognise that sport is a kind of addiction, and I just haven’t ever had my first hit, as it were. I said that I didn’t ‘hate’ sport and I was perfectly happy to come and watch the curling, the fencing, the tennis, the whatever, even, sigh, the rugby, if they were involved, I just wasn’t personally interested in it. I said I thought watching golf or, Jesus, cricket, on television was really sad, but hey, each to their own. Then I listed some things I am interested in – cinema, fine art, clothes, American novels, gardening and the search for the perfect Danish pastry. This last they laughed at, but I said I was serious. Pastry, I believe is much more important than motor racing.
Anyway, I was happy with that, but my friend and successor Mrs Franklin, whose interests, with one or two exceptions, are different to my own, very kindly added that she thought I was missing something, and that the thing I seemed most interested in was other people.
“Surely everybody’s interested in other people,’ I said. But, no, it turns out they didn’t think so. And this was a bit of a personal revelation for me, because, hell yes, I am interested in other people. More or less everybody, their stories and what makes them tick.
But people are strange.
So I am on a train coming back from London, on the day after that Sunday when the country half flooded and there were no trains north. The train was, of course, jammed, but I had a reserved seat. From the outset there were people standing, crowded vestibules, bags everywhere. In the corner seat on the other side of the aisle a coat was sitting, a large coat, without anybody in it, next to a thin old lady, with ear buds in who knitted throughout her journey. At York a very old lady got on, without a reservation, and I waited to see which younger person would rise to give her a seat; in due course, a very large man sitting next to his wife did. He graciously gave her his seat then stood in the aisle taking to his wife. I began to focus on the coat and eventually said to Miss Knitter – ‘is that seat free?’. She mimed not hearing, then removed one ear bud. ‘It’s not my coat’, she said then cut herself off again.
This I couldn’t stand. The injustice somehow overtook and obsessed me. The fucking coat had to go. The fat knight had to sit down. Loudly, I said, ‘I think that seat is free,’ to him and he moved up, ‘Is it free?’ he enquired.
And only then did the young woman sitting opposite the coat, huffily stand up and move it. Miss Knitter kept her eyes down, and several of us took a breath, allowing our collective faith in humanity to drop a notch. Did she really really think that her coat deserved a seat more than one of the 100 or so people on this journey. Really? Aaaaaaaaaaaaarrrrrgggghhhh.
I emerge to the remains of the storm at Waverley, up the escalators and into the murky afternoon. Instantly I leave the top escalator my hat blows off and is borne away across Princes Street. Burdened with luggage I watch as it sails into the air, swoops in front of a bus, lands in the middle of the road, has another bus trundle over it, then is lifted up away and disappears somewhere in the gutters beside the Balmoral hotel, though it seems, as I shove my bag towards that general direction, to have remained unscathed. I am further downcast. This hat is a relic, $8 in Uniqlo in New York City, and much admired. Cheap and stylish – everything I have always longed to be.
A young man says, ‘Is that your hat? It’s under that car.’ I cumbersomely lay myself flattish on the pavement.
‘I think I can get it,’ he says and crawling a bit, he reaches under and secures it.
‘There you are.’
‘Thank you,’ I said. ‘I love this hat.” But he has gone.
An old man standing at the bus stop, who was, oddly, blind, said ‘Did you get your hat?’
‘I did, I did,’ I said, feeling much better.
All the world, really, in one journey. People are strange, when you’re a stranger.