Friday, 2 October 2009

Bob and the art of beaming

Some years ago, I lived in Holland and then also in Texas. I was asked once what the difference was between the two cultures. While I like both of them, it was notable that while the Dutch tend to be tolerant even of activities of which they personally disapprove, Texans tended to be quite strongly intolerant of anything which they did not personally endorse. I suppose you could say it is the difference between an unusually liberal culture and an unusually conservative culture. I admit I did feel more comfortable in Holland. With a tolerant and liberal upbringing, I struggled regularly with the, increasingly faith-based, conservatism in Texas. Texas is one of the great 'cultures' in the world but it's not quite 'for me'; I did the right thing and moved on (to China, of all places).

Meanwhile I had always viewed England as being tolerant, and it was my benchmark; not so liberal as Holland but more so than most places I have lived or visited. But many experiences in the last couple of years, including those online, force me to reconsider. As just one example, for more than a year I regularly inhabited the main UK waterways online forums, but I no longer go there very much. I feel that a relatively small bunch of contributing regulars just go beyond giving their opinions and prefer to then attack the opinions of others. Even innocuous discussions about technical matters regularly degenerate into tiresome flame wars and trolling competitions. Each to their own: as I did with Texas, I just migrated elsewhere.

I felt increasingly dejected. After 17 years as an expatriate, I had been enjoying our return to the UK, but it was feeling more like Texas and less like Holland now. Still a good place but conservative-leaning rather than liberal-leaning. I am sure many will disagree, suggesting that the country has become too namby-pamby liberal and that's the problem. I started seriously to think about the possibilities of leaving again.

Then I met Bob.

During the last year, we have been trying to find a sailing club nearby. It needs to have the right mix of racing, cruising and social activities for adults (some sailing clubs are decidedly focused on the cadet fleet) - and I cannot even begin to rationalise exactly what the idea club looks like. At one club Open Day, we happened across a man called Bob (name changed for some reason) who cheerfully said that he would take us out. Although we sail, we had a non-sailing visitor with us and so we stuck together and Bob took us out in his Enterprise. Bob turned out to be absolutely the perfect gentlemen and, although in his 60s at least, really hit it off with my normally somewhat reserved teenage kids. There was something exceptionally relaxed, confident and "right" about Bob.

As we sailed around, we kept finding ourselves in a tangle with younger teenagers and kids in Optimists and Toppers. Bob knew them all, and gently helped them on their way each time. Even though boats were regularly bumping into his beautifuly-kept GRP dinghy, he was unfazed.

"Boats are for sailing," he beamed.

I realised that I don't see people beam very much. This man was beaming! Doesn't he read the papers? Doesn't he know that everything is broken and everyone is grumpy?
No. This man beams and forgives everyone and just relaxes. He sails. Everyone likes him. I mean really like him. Before the word 'nice' became an insult, Bob was what you would call nice.

Despite being clearly an excellent sailor, he was simply relaxed about our more ham-fisted mistakes with his boat. He was the picture of happiness.

The world needs people like Bob. Because the world needs tolerance, friendship and the ability to chill out. Just because we can give our strident opinions, it doesn't mean we actually should, no matter how technically superior we may be to others. Even though we wish a pox on all those around us who screw everything up, do it all wrong, rip us off, do us down, it's worth noting that it's people like Bob who get liked.

Because people like Bob beam. And are happy. And I believe Britain is a country of Bobs trying to become more Bob-like.

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