In ‘An American Werewolf in London’ a couple of American backpackers try to take shelter in a pub near the beginning of the film as they try and cross a generic bit of Yorkshire, and it is now dark. As they enter The Slaughtered Lamb – which is full – all the talking stops and the locals stare at them with a distinctly unfriendly look.
The boys leave, and so the story starts properly.
Now, of course the reason for the unfriendliness is due to fear of strangers and more pertinently the werewolf on the loose but this kind of silence as a stranger walks into a pub is observable in real life. Oddly though, I almost feel more like this every day as I walk around London or anywhere else in the South East where people are always in a particular hurry. No one belongs and no one offers casual friendship, often not even the politeness of a word or eye contact and not even in some cases when the people who meet in this way are acquainted. We’ve been blanked many times by people we thought we knew well, and have probably done the same to others, as we rush off to the next terribly important thing we have to do.
Thankfully, at the weekend when we walked into a pub – the Fighting Cocks in Stottesdon, Shropshire to be precise – we had the opposite. We had smiles, several of the staff chatted with us pleasantly, seemed genuinely interested (and did not seem to mind the mud we brought in, only enquiring had we walked or biked). Behind me a teenage girl (one of several on the waiting staff) asked Derek – the old boy digging into his Sunday roast cheerfully behind us – if he wanted dessert and then suggested the treacle tart; positively received. Clearly he is there every Sunday at least.
Meanwhile the family who had come to celebrate Grandma’s birthday had to deal with the crisis of the unstoppable smoke alarm (well that is all we could glean) but could not get any signal on their mobile, this being middle of nowhere. So they asked the pub if they could use its landline, and got an immediate ‘of course answer’ – cannot see that in central London except in the direst emergency.
I have sometimes wondered what is going on here. Of course the phone borrowers and Derek are locals and the pub lives or dies on them. They could be related for all I know. But they treated us just as well. And it is not just a single pub experience. In fact what this most reminded me of is how we have been treated while on holiday on some of the smaller Islands round Britain, such as the Isles of Scilly or the Outer Hebrides.
In all of these cases, after several days we found people showing us cheerful recognition in a way I normally would only expect from people we knew really well. Now, I am under no illusion that this was anything but surface, but in context it is important. In some of these places, including rural Shropshire in inclement weather become quite isolated. Where we were staying this weekend had a ford to cross and several footbridges had been washed away; there are many places where flooding or snow would effectively cut off a village at least from any motor vehicle. Islands have it even worse, and at sea the weather can be changeable and unpredictable.
So it could easily be that when we are staying on a lovely but tiny island such as Lundy (off the Devon coast) in April, it could quite easily be that the island could be cut off for several days. At that point, the only people you can rely on are your fellow islanders, permanent and temporary. Someone gets ill – is that person in the holiday cottage a Doctor perhaps? Or a just a strong pair of hands to help clear a blockage and/or a soft pair of hands to help look after children who cannot now get to school as the ferry is not running? That stranger who has just walked into your pub might be incredibly useful to you, perhaps a literal lifesaver.
I think a lot of people who live in places that can be potentially isolated understand that (consciously or otherwise). Where we have no need – apparently – to rely on each other, we ignore each other except for the times we have no choice and for our closest friends and family for whom we might make the effort.
The lovely wife and I do have a plan to go and live in the country in our latter years. I hope we can learn to be the kind of people that when a couple of drenched backpackers turn up lost and helpless on our doorstep we welcome them in with honest hospitality and do not cast them out again to the mercy of the wolves.