I went to Liverpool recently, and I realised how much of a Londoner I have become.
I emerged from Liverpool Lime Street, irritable and grumpy from a four hour train journey with no trolley service, to the smiles and observations of endless smiling faces.
Why is everyone so happy here? We’ve just got off of public transport, which everyone knows is the most depressing place in the world, and definitely not somewhere that exchanging smiles is encouraged.
I went to get a coffee and before I had even opened my mouth: ‘Oh God, your gloves are dead cute, I love them. Bev look at this girls gorgeous gloves’
I don’t even know how to take a compliment from a stranger because it’s been such a long time since I’ve received one. Don’t get me wrong, there’s the occasional timid approach from someone that quite likes the look of your coat and would like to buy it, but rarely does the person behind you in a queue for coffee, go out of their way to stop you and shower you with compliments.
I carried on to Liverpool central, where I was getting the train out to Formby to visit my Nan. I walked into the station and scoured the space for a ticket machine. I saw three people wearing high-vis, all there to help, yet I turned around, determined to be self-sufficient and looked for the machine outside. There wasn’t one. I walked back in, convinced that I had not looked properly, before I could scan the station for a second time, a man from the other side of the barriers shouted: ‘Are you alright there love?’
Was he talking to me? Surely not.
He started to walk toward me. ‘What are you looking for? You look lost’
‘Oh, um, well, um’
What the fuck is this, help without asking for it?
‘Just the ticket machine?’
‘Right, you’ve walked right past that big sign that says tickets, there’s a machine inside the shop, or you could talk to a person over the counter. Good luck love.’
It’s as if I’ve become incapable of asking for help, or engaging with strangers in public spaces. It honestly didn’t even cross my mind to ask someone, they’re always so rude and unhelpful, accept clearly they’re not.
I opted to speak to the person over the counter.
I’m not saying London is a soulless place where no human interaction occurs BUT when it does, it kind of knocks you side ways. It’s like you have to take off your defensive mask before you actually compute that someone may be speaking to you. There is no time to put on a defensive mask, let alone take one off when you’re in Liverpool. Everyone’s your friend. Everyone want’s to tell you what they had for breakfast and what their Mum’s neighbour said to the postman last Wednesday. It reminded me of being back in the little Cotswold village that I grew up in, a place where walking past someone and not giving a wave and a ‘Lovely Morning’, would be the equivalent of shouting ‘FUCK OFF YOU PRICK.’
Notoriously, no one speaks to each other on the tube, and if someone does try to speak to you, you’re sceptical, because they’re either a Jehovah’s witness or they have ulterior motives like getting in your knickers. I for one, do not have time for either of those types of people.
But, perhaps I have become too cagey, too assured that ever interaction I have outside of the home will be hostile or forced. In order for my journey to be as smooth and incident free as possible, the easiest option is to ignore everyone. Until someone breaks the mould, which is rarely, I am on a one person mission, tunnel vision which includes my phone or a poster on the side of the tube. Even when I do attempt to shake it up, you know take out my head phones, engage with the fellow humans around me with polite eye-contact and maybe even a slightly bitchy head nod and eye roll toward the man that’s fallen asleep with his mouth open and has started to let out a little snore. Even then, it feels like I’m doing something taboo, like I’m rebelling against the status quo of ‘Oh no, this is London, no one speaks to each other because we’re too busy, and important.’
I didn’t realise how attached I had become to this façade. Even on a night out, I was standing at a bar in Liverpool and a guy knocked into me. I turned around expecting him to have already moved on, but instead I was inundated with apologies, and ‘Oh God, I’m so clumsy, can I buy you a drink?’
And it’s not just at the bar, it’s in the smoking area, which merges into the street. Where everyone is invited into the conversation; bouncers, guys who will be sleeping on the street, guys who won’t be sleeping at all, girls who need to borrow lippy, or eye lash glue and you’ll never ever go without a fag. Go to Clapham on a night out and you’d think cigarettes had been placed on rations, everyone’s an only child that doesn’t want to share their favourite toy with their annoying little sister.
I’m wary that I’m encouraging a stereo type; that people up North are friendly, and that everyone down South is stand-offish. Which I had always kind of denied, and if not denied I hadn’t minded. So what if we all go about our own business and only occasionally pop our heads up from the rat race to engage with the other rats? But I couldn’t help but notice, on this particular occasion, that there was a stark contrast with how I was accustomed to engaging with strangers, and how strangers were engaging with me. It made me think. All it really takes is that one person to break the mould, to start a conversation, to give a compliment, or to ask someone if they need help, even if they haven’t asked for it. Why not be that person? The worst that’s going to happen is they tell you to fuck off, to which you can reply: ‘Yes, right I will, but only after I’ve told you how much I love your hat.’