As I was sitting on the train at London Waterloo this week waiting for it to leave, a man got on and asked if he could have the seat next to me. He didn’t ask with a “Please may I……”, he simply threw his newspaper across me and waited for me to get up and let him in.
It was bad mannered and irritating but I thought no more of it. But then he sat down and spread himself across his seat and into half of mine! I moved slightly so that we weren’t pushing each other, whereupon he spread himself further into my seat. It was almost as if he wanted a confrontation. When it became intolerable I asked him politely if he would mind letting me have some room. His reaction was extraordinary.
He looked at me, his faced screwed up with aggression and said: “Do me a favour mate. Sod off!”
Wherever you are in the world, you can’t fail to have noticed the news this week of Margaret Thatcher’s death. What you may not have seen, if you live outside the UK, is that people in some cities have been holding impromptu street parties to celebrate her death.
I don’t understand what kind of person uses hostility and belligerence, as my traveling companion did, as their first response to any form of challenge however benign. Nor can I imagine how full of hate your mind must be for you to think it is tasteful or appropriate to dance on someone’s grave – especially when the funeral is yet to happen and there is a family in mourning.
Contrast this with any running event you have ever been to. I can safely say that since my first organised cross-country contest nearly 40 years ago, I have never heard an aggressive word spoken before, during or after a race.
I have run in crowded fields and seen people accidentally clip the ankles of the runner in front. It is invariably resolved with a “Sorry” and a “Don’t worry, no problem”.
I remember standing in the starting pen at the London Marathon and being moved by the feeling of goodwill and shared endeavour. People who, in another setting, would have walked past each other were chatting and laughing like old friends. I also remember running past a million happy smiling faces who wished the runners nothing but success.
In the same race I remember the banana man on Poplar High Street (read about him in this post) A man who had devoted his entire day to helping runners in the London Marathon and who asked for nothing in return.
I remember as I lay prostrate and exhausted after my first triathlon, a competitor who I had raced over the last 100 metres, bringing me a drink of water.
I remember during the Salisbury Half-Marathon, my first race at that distance, I had been chatting with another runner on the way round telling him that my target was to run under two hours. After the race he came and found me in the melee to congratulate me on achieving my goal.
Just this weekend I watched some friends run a local triathlon and saw an inattentive marshal send an exhausted runner the wrong way. Was his response hostile, rude or aggressive? No – it was to crack a joke!
I coud go on – there are so many examples of generosity and kindness that I have experienced when competing. In my London Marathon blog post, I said that one of my abiding memories of the day was that it had reaffirmed to me that in the right conditions, the default behaviour of human beings is to be generous, kind and helpful.
So perhaps my conclusion is that running and competing have much more to offer our society than simply a form of recreation. Should we scrap the idea that surfaces every ten years or so of reintroducing national service and replace it with a new form of conscription? Maybe in its place we should make everyone train for and run a marathon before their 25th birthday, so they can have at least one experience of a world where, if you treat others with respect and kindness, not only will you get it back, you will feel good about it.