It upsets me what it takes to upset me.
It seems to require, more than anything else, an artistic juxtaposition. Understand what I mean here by ‘artistic’. I don’t mean an aesthetically pleasing juxtaposition. Far from it. I mean the sort of juxtaposition an artist would make. I’m afraid that plain old suffering isn’t enough to provoke a reaction. It has to be set off alongside something else, an ironic comment, an oxymoron, to hit home.
I was walking this afternoon through London Bridge station. As so often, an Eastern European looking woman was sitting mournfully by a wall. She had two red-faced, listless children with her. The younger sat up looking at nothing much. The older was laid out across her lap, motionless.
I’m reconstructing this scene because I wasn’t really looking. I was happily walking home, listening to some music, thinking about my Friday night. I, along with everyone else, pretended not to see the sorry scene.
I turned the corner into the new underground concourse in the station, where there is now a selection of small shops selling fruit, smoothies, coffee and the like. Two of the stalls were offering free samples to passing commuters.
I swung from blind happiness to almost incandescent, unfocused rage within a second, almost before I had a chance to think about it. What stays with me now is that I didn’t react to the woman and her children, or if I did, I filed it in that self-deceptive category city people create which says ‘You never know with these people.’ I didn’t react to the free food either, which is not nearly so shameful. I reacted purely and precisely to the physical proximity of the two images compared to the moral distance between them.
Thinking about it, maybe I did react along aesthetic lines. I can’t see any way of denying it.
Worse, to my shame, by the time I got back to where the woman and her kids were sitting, they were in the process of being moved along by station staff.