After my homage yesterday to those people who make life a little bit better, today I met someone who makes life a little bit worse. The person had no idea of my name; I may write this under a strict veil of anonymity, knowing it will go unseen. Although, I suddenly realise, this person could stand as an archetype for the kind of human who drains rather than radiates. so it’s almost not about that individual at all, but a type.
It was the classic thing of speaking always of the negative, rather than the positive. I know that some people find my Labrador-ish Pollyannaisms quite hard to take. I tend to jump up and wag my tail. I look so bloody hard on the bright side I’m developing a squint. But I really do believe that if someone is wearing a hideous hat, you should tell them how lovely their shoes are. Why not? What does it cost?
It was also a much more nuanced and fascinating tactic of denigrating a thing the person turned out not to be very good at. The human could not be at fault, therefore the exercise itself must be dull and pointless. There was a basic lack of good manners, which would have made my mother raise her eyebrow. But, I realised as I drove away, perhaps the most striking aspect was the entire lack of charm.
Charm has a bad reputation. It is often considered manipulative, gimcrack, bogus. It is the enemy of the authentic. Proper people don’t need charm; that is the province of the confidence tricksters and the serial adulterers and the sellers of impossible dreams. Yet most people try to have a little bit of charm. It’s quite rare to meet someone who has none at all. I think that, if it is used properly, it acts as the good grease that keeps the wheels of social intercourse going round.
Because I like it, I try to define it. It is more than politeness, although that is a part of it. It is a giving, an offering of self. It is the ability to listen, to regard the human with whom you are speaking as important and interesting and worth attention. It is an ease in the self, which makes room for others. It is self-effacing, not always having to be the best, the loudest, the biggest thing in the room. It is not always doing the tap dance, but letting others have a go.
My father was famous for his charm. His was the diametrical opposite of the charm school charm. He could never remember anyone’s name, for a start. He would not ask you about your sick uncle, your child prodigy, your new job, because even if you had told him about these things, he would have forgotten them. His charm came out in pure light. He would shuffle into a room in his little blue suit and illuminate it. I used to watch people’s faces break into involuntary smiles, just at the sight of him.
He had a sort of childlike delight in people, thought the best of them until they proved otherwise, laughed at their jokes, roared with merriment at his own, twinkled his old eyes with a glint of naughtiness, and generally left people feeling better than when he found them. His charm did not vary; it went up to a Spinal Tap eleven for a duke or a dustman.
There was something wonderfully hopeful about him, even though he had been literally and metaphorically battered by life. His body had been very broken (neck and back twice); his heart had been sorely, irredeemably grieved. But he gave the sense that he always had hope, even if that hope was mostly that his Saturday accumulator would come good.
After the charmless person, I met another human with that exact brand of easy charm. He made me feel interesting and bright, even though I was covered in mud and wearing a frankly peculiar hat. He had been publicly and gloriously successful in his career, and, like all people who are really, really good at something, he wore those glittering prizes lightly. I watched him with other people. I noticed that he made time for everyone, particularly the younger ones, the ones that someone with a sense of their own import might have overlooked. ‘Ah, yes,’ I thought, ‘you are the real article. You have the right stuff. You must make somebody’s life a little bit better every day.’
PS. The wonderful bit of software that is Live Writer is suddenly not working with Blogger, which is why the layout and pictures are so sub-standard. It's a tremendous bore and there is nothing I can do about it. Apologies.