The Kindness of Geordies

I have written before about kindness, and it’s a topic I find myself returning to frequently. In part this is because my life is such that I have often found myself at the mercy of others’ generosity, sometimes by accident (homelessness, penury), sometimes by design (holidays spent on strange sofas).

I’m fascinated by kindness, because what should be so simple – what is a basic human instinct – gets so very complicated. I’ve written before about the difficulty of asking for help, and why I think it’s important to build a muscle of trust: to not just ask for help, but to get into the habit of it. To ask without feeling you are a burden, that you are weak, that it is embarrassing not to be able to handle whatever you are going through – a financial shortfall, an emotional crisis – alone and unaided.

And likewise, to be bold enough to give. We are so often constrained from our natural instinct to generosity because we fear that we look pushy, interfering, presumptuous. As if we are storing up favours or expectation in return, as if someone will look at our gift and wonder at our motives.

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The truth is, though, there is pleasure and rewards to be had on both sides of the equation. Giving with an open hand is delightful – is there anything better than presenting someone with a gift they truly love? Offering a helping hand when you know you can make a real difference? And likewise, the enormous relief of relaxing into someone else’s aid: of having a hand help you keep afloat, even for a minute, even just long enough for you to catch your breath and start swimming again.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot since my return since I have, by necessity, again been dependent on others’ hospitality. Although I had anticipated having to stay with friends and family for a while, it’s taken longer than I hoped, and my plan to spread myself so thinly as to not be too much of a burden (see? I write about this shit and still do it) has fallen through due to not everywhere I was counting on being available. But it’s also been a bit of an unforeseen gift. I’ve been splitting my time between one of my oldest friends and my cousin, and being able to catch up properly with them – as opposed to ticking them off a list as I hare around trying to cram everyone into a weekend visit – has been an unmitigated joy.

It’s also been useful and eye-opening: all my initial plans for my move involved city centre apartments or luxury flats with balconies overlooking the river, a fantasy that is more manageable in a much cheaper city. But staying in very different neighbourhoods has broadened my perspective, and the place I ended up renting is located in an area I hadn’t even initially considered. It has encouraged me to face up to my own issues about accepting without angst – for example, setting up a Ko-fi account was an exercise in asking. (HUGE thanks to everyone who has donated – I get an email every time someone does, which adds a nice little buzz to a day).

Having been the subject of generosity from all over the country (indeed, the globe), I don’t think one region, place or culture has a monopoly on kindness. But I have noticed a difference since I moved back North. In large part, it’s a matter of attention.

In London, as in New York, we train ourselves to look away. Perhaps this is its own form of generosity: in a city where we are living on top of one another, giving someone privacy is a gift of its own. But it does mean that many things go unnoticed. In exceptional circumstances, both Londoners and New Yorkers have proven themselves capable of extraordinary kindnesses – but on an average day, you’re lifting your own suitcase up those stairs, matey.

In Newcastle, we seem more programmed to look towards one another. I’ve mentioned the whole ‘smiling on the subway’ thing, which continues to freak me out. But I had two experiences this week alone where strangers ran to my aid, unasked, and I wondered – how the hell did you even notice that? The other day, I was buzzing into my aunt’s building when I realised that, laden with bags as I was, I was on the wrong side of a barrier: so actually managing to hold open the door, cross the stairs and get inside before the whole thing slammed closed again was impossible – and a young couple literally sprinted across the street to hold it open for me. A few days later, when I was locking up at my cousin’s, and doing my usual ‘paranoid I haven’t locked someone else’s door properly, so I have to check 45 times’ routine, I faffed about so long that a builder from the construction site across the road came over to check that I was OK. ‘You alright, pet? Locked yourself out?’ Neither action was earth-shattering, but each spoke to a level of casual observation I have rarely encountered down south.

Of course, feeling people are paying attention isn’t always a good thing. I could have done with some London indifference the other day when, sitting on a crowded Metro, I went to reapply my lipbalm and only realised, as I put it to my mouth, that I had actually pulled a loose tampon from my bag…

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Metro life

I’ve lived in three cities with a metro system (4, I suppose, if you count Sheffield’s trams), and they are very different. Glasgow’s famous ‘clockwork orange’, whose cylindrical trains seemed so small the first time I saw them, I laughed (laughter which died down quickly when I got on and spotted, in no short order, a guy wearing a Freddie Krueger bladed glove and someone else bleeding profusely with a head injury: welcome to Glasgow!) (I must stress, I lived in Glasgow for a long time, and loved it, but there were times when I returned and it made a… strong… first impression).

London’s underground was everything people say it is, for better or worse. On the one hand, and incredibly clever feat of engineering that spans most of one of the world’s most complex cities. On the other, an un-air-conditioned, sweaty, strike-plagued, overcrowded, dirty hellscape full of rude people who would throw their granny on the live rail to get a seat. (One of my friends once managed to get into a crammed carriage just before the doors closed, only to have a fellow passenger PHYSICALLY PICK HER UP, plonk her back on the platform and drag his girlfriend inside in her place).

The Metro, of course, was the system I grew up with. I remember being dazzled when it opened as a child, a fast and easy route from my Felling neighbourhood to the glories of Newcastle city centre. After I left, I only used it rarely: my mum lived within walking distance of town, so I used to just amble down the road whenever I needed to. Since she died, I have most often stayed with friends in Wallsend or Sunderland, or family in Heworth, so have become necessarily reacquainted with it.

Much of it is unchanged, at least to my memory: the boxy cars, the bumblebee signage of yellow and black; the terrible mural at Monument featuring barely recognisable local figures, the Latin at Wallsend. But it’s a very different experience from using the London tube, and it is taking me a little time to get used to it.

For a start, the gaps between the trains seem ridiculous when you are used to London – 12 minutes between trains? Why aren’t people rioting? (The trick, I have been sagely informed by fellow Northerners-cum-Londoners, is to use the Metro app and think of them as trains, not tubes). Although some of the trains are slightly shabby, they are mostly tidy and clean (ish) – they are also both more spacious and, conversely, less well-designed to handle a crowd: tube trains seem better designed for standing, if you need to. The ‘open door’ buttons are not just for show, too, which has led to a few near misses at my stop, as I complacently wait for the doors to pop open, unsolicited. (In London, it’s a sign of being a tourist if you actually press the button).

It can be as unreliable as London – I cancelled my first yoga class because the metros were off the Sunday I needed to get to it; and I had to cab it back from South Shields on Friday as the lines were down after my play. But at least, in a smaller city, there are alternatives: the buses are good, and not usually too crazy-busy, and a taxi is an affordable option (albeit not all the time, and obviously not for everyone).

But it’s the Metro etiquette that has thrown me the most. On a recent visit, before my relocation, I nearly missed my stop because an elderly gent stepped back, waving me past and I was so puzzled by his gesture I didn’t get that he was inviting me to get off first. I hung back, not wanting to push past him, and we stood in a polite standoff until I twigged, muttered a hasty thanks and left.

In the main (I have been wearily informed by long-term locals this is not always the case), people are quick to stand for those who need seats. I have realised Metro etiquette if you catch someone’s eye is not to look away hastily but to acknowledge them with a slight smile – hey, look at us, we’re all on this train together. Occasionally, this will even lead to chat: an old lady will explain her reasons for reading the Metro newspaper (‘it’s all rubbish, but it’s something to read’), and I got quite the lecture on bird-keeping from a woman carrying a canary in a cage. In London, I would have veered away from her as a potential loon: in Newcastle, I happily made small-talk, nodded where she needed me to (yes, I can imagine canaries are territorial). Which made me think, it’s not just that the Metro is different. Maybe it’s that I am, too.

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Rom-com with a dash of Northern charm: The Bridesmaid Blues

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