A Sideways Glare at Contemporary Society
I met Miss Reed (not her real name) many years ago in a Residential Hotel in London. She was 80-something and lied about her age. Strictly speaking British residential hotels are not retirement facilities, so according to her — and select members of the staff — she was 72 (and had been for more than a decade.) The fiction was Miss Reed was looking for a part time teaching position in the area. She had excellent credentials. As a young woman, she’d left Britain sometime in the 30s to teach school in China – Shanghai, to be exact. She’d vaguely spent World War II in the Far East (she redirected all my questions about the war.) When the war was over, she slowly retreated home to London as the British Empire closed up shop; first in India, then in Kuala Lumpur and finally at a boarding school in Sevenoaks, Kent. The London she lived in was not the London she’d left, and it made her sad sometimes.
For those of you unfamiliar with British residential hotels, they are all basically the same. There are rooms upstairs, reception, a dining area and a lounge/bar which usually opens at six. Actually, just think Fawlty Towers. There is always a Basil in there somewhere, a Manuel and at least one Major. The place we stayed at had several. It was these various ex-military residents and the IRA’s propensity for revenge that made our hotel a “soft” target for terrorism (although nobody called it that in those days.) It was The Troubles and it wasn’t open to academic debate. We were shown the evacuation routes, told not to leave our bags unattended and generally advised to be cautious during our stay. I had no idea what cautious looked like. After all, I hadn’t been threatened with violence since Betty Jones and her big boyfriend decided my lunch looked more interesting than hers back in second grade. However, being in a foreign country, I wanted to do my best, so, after the first couple of days of getting the lay of the land, I took the nightly residential gathering over drinks in the lounge to ask around. Most of the advice was the usual; hide your wallet sort of thing, although one fellow did tell me it was best not to speak to Irishmen. Then there was Miss Reed who usually had one gin before dinner.
“Nonsense,” she said, “Here we are, young man, and here is where we intend to stay. We haven’t drawn the curtains and turned down the lights. One cannot hide from those who would do us harm. So we must go about our affairs as best we can. In the High Street every day, there are automobiles and buses whizzing about and any one of them can strike you down in a second. So what do we do? Stand at the kerb and wait for them to go away? Return home and lock our doors? No, we cross. We use caution and look both ways — but we cross.”
So Boston, it’s time to take your place with London, New York, Madrid and Oklahoma City. It’s time to open your curtains and turn on the lights. The madmen, who wish to do you harm, are not going to go away. They live on fear and the only way to defend yourself is to take that away from them.
The next day, Miss Reed put on her hat and her gloves and went out, as she did every afternoon, to have tea on the High Street.