Far from the Madding Crowds

The sightseeing season is under way. Hopes of warmer weather encourages the winter stay-at-homes to explore beyond their front doors. My big adventure was a trip to central London to investigate Sea Life, followed by a trip on the London Eye where the crowds are out in force.

It’s a long time since I’ve had an expedition like this, probably pre-Covid and I think I’m suffering with the leftover fear of a large group of people and the potential for virus contagion. I had a small companion who was another body caught up in lockdown but I was relieved to see the hesitancy she showed towards others during that period has now gone. She was boisterous and excited. Thank goodness for the resilience of youth.

We had a glitch with a signal failure at Waterloo which involved a change of plan to bus and Tube. My little friend has never liked loud noises and who knew the London Underground could be that noisy.

After various changes where I, the leader, became completely lost, we reached Waterloo. This is a trip I once was used to. It’s alarming how easily we can find ourselves trapped in our own imagination, if we allow others to convince us it’s the right move.

The crowds. I’m short, so is she. She will grow. It’s not easy manoeuvring this way and that when you – I – barely come up to someone else’s shoulder and when you’re clutching an even smaller person’s hand. She surprised me by her dexterity at getting her way to the front of the Sea World aquarium slots without seeming to wind others up. I had a bit more trouble there.

biljana martinic kjfbdofujco unsplash

What I did find different from my pre-Covid explorations is the increasing absorption of other visitors with photographing and videoing via their smart phones, to the extent that they seemed to have no awareness of others around them. They pressed their screens to the aquarium face as they filmed the sharks or the penguins, and then they turned round to do their own selfies with the same creatures.

But not that many people stood and watched the creatures as they were, in real time. It was strange. There was all this extraordinary other worldliness to observe but they weren’t really looking. They were missing out on real life in order to record what they might see later. Memories are great but not as a replacement for the initial experience.

Next stop was a little more complicated with the step up onto the Eye needing careful negotiation, particularly as the wheel continued to move and I was holding tightly onto my charge’s hand.

But that wasn’t the worst part, that came seconds later with the sensation of speed as people propelled themselves into the gondola. I was taken aback to see well-dressed women in their 20s and 30s pushing ahead to secure a bird’s window position. What was the rush and there were limited spaces so surely there was room for everyone?

And then, as the smart phones came out and the elegant mouths moued in familiar poses, I realised what it was about. I was a bystander in a giant social media shoot. The young women moved speedily from one side to the other, arms outstretched, clothes artfully positioned as they posed for the perfect shot.

But even among the sea of people, they were all alone, seemingly oblivious to the “other” who also wanted a chance to see this spectacular bird’s eye view of London.

I thought I was the only one feeling just that bit irritated by the pushing and shoving so was pleased when a lady from California – suitably dressed in jeans and jumper – started to tell the gang off. They ignored her but I felt better knowing someone else agreed with me.

Generations do things differently. It’s how we make progress. We want to make our own mark on life and to improve on what’s gone before. It’s natural to believe the generation before you is not as good as you are, or you are going to be.

It may be an age thing. I remember my own youthful preoccupations and they were certainly connected with how other people viewed me. I got over that (long-enough) phase when I genuinely realised that others were so preoccupied with how they were seen that they didn’t have time to give me much thought. It was oddly comforting.

What seems different now, is the evidence shows other people’s perception of you can matter and make a difference. Smart phones wouldn’t work if people didn’t want to be seen by others. And if those others like what they see on social media, an influencer will gain enough followers to monetarise their account. If you have enough followers, sponsorship or advertising arrives. Meanwhile, the person who blends into an ordinary world – as most of us do – is not appealing to these advertisers. So why would anyone want to be ordinary?

I have to admit to admiring these would-be influencers. They are feisty. They know what they want and they are trying to get it. It’s also not easy being dressed up to the nines all the time, with beautiful, sleeked back hair, cream coats (in London, really?) and high, high heels. That takes a lot of work because you’re always on show.

But how will they feel if they don’t make it into the arena of success? Where do they go from there? At what point will they admit defeat and go back to ordinary, or will they ever? It’s bad enough feeling awkward if you’re embarrassed on a small scale but social media is something else. Who wants to see personal shame projected on a full-scale screen? Not many.

I have a little postscript to this story. I had pointed out Big Ben (obvious) to my little friend and was trying to find Buckingham Palace which seemed difficult to spot, for me at any rate. I felt joyful when I did and was excitedly telling her where to look.

“Excuse me,” said one of the would-be influencers in heavily accented English. “Can you show me where is Buckingham Palace?”

I could and did and she smiled charmingly as she moved off to point it out to her equally glamorous friends. I was surprised to find the exchange had softened my irritation towards her. A part of me even hopes her influencer aspirations will turn out better than my experience of the school of hard knocks indicates it might.

Photo 1: John Cameron on Unsplash
Photo 2: Biljana Martinić on Unsplash